Some 94% of Italy's crop is grown in the northern regions of Lombardy, around Milan, and Piedmont, around Turin.
Roberto Magnaghi, director general of Ente Nazionale Risi, a public rice research body, told Reuters no more than 211,000 hectares will be sown with rice in 2023, the smallest area for 23 years.
"Water is scarce. We are all looking up at the sky," he said.
The 2023 estimate is down by 7,400 hectares from 2022 and by 16,000 compared to 2021.
Agricultural lobby Coldiretti made a similar estimate.
Decline In Rice Output
Magnaghi said the outlook in Lombardy and Piedmont is even bleaker than in 2022, when crops were wrecked by drought and production was down 17% from the year before. In Lombardy's Pavia province, famous for its risotto rice, output fell 16%.
Soil moisture levels have still not recovered from last year's drought and current snowfall accumulation in the Italian Alps is lower than in 2022, said Andrea Toreti, an agriculture expert at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.
"It will be hard to fill the shortfall we have with spring rainfalls," he said.
Scientists and environmental groups sounded the alarm about Italian water shortages in January after the sharp drop in winter snowfall.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told parliament on Tuesday she was working with regional and city authorities on a "national water plan" to improve infrastructures with new technologies and raise public awareness on the need to save water.
Rice, introduced in Italy in the second half of the 15th century, is one of the most water intensive crops, with between 3,000 and 10,000 litres of water needed to obtain a kilogram of output, depending on varieties and other conditions.
The sowing season starts in April when farmers plant seeds in pools 30 to 40 centimetres deep. These must then be constantly irrigated to keep the upcoming sprouts under water.
Coldiretti is lobbying the government to boost reservoir capacity, its head of economics Lorenzo Bazzana told Reuters, adding that Italy manages to collect just 11% of its rainwater.
With climate change bringing increasingly frequent droughts, Italy is also seeking other solutions to safeguard its rice production.
The southern island of Sicily, which abandoned rice production a century ago, began growing it again in 2016 with small-scale cultivations using innovative techniques that need far less water than those traditionally used in the north.
Magnaghi, of Ente Nazionale Risi, said research was also underway to create new rice varieties more resistant to drought, but this is hampered by European Union legislation limiting genetically modified crops.
"With traditional methods it takes years to create new varieties," he said.