June 29, 2008

Farmers, Ranchers Feeling the Heat As Drought Returns to Texas

FORTH WORTH, Texas _ For many farmers and ranchers, it's becoming an all-too-familiar routine: One drought ends and another begins.

Over the last 12 years, Texas has weathered five droughts, and another might be in the works.

South and Southwest Texas are in the throes of a major drought, and dry conditions are starting to creep into other parts of the state.

Crops are withering, wildfires are burning, and water restrictions have returned to the Edwards Plateau in Central Texas.

In North Texas, ranchers can only hope it starts raining.

"It's like we're in a minidrought," said Todd Meadows, a Wise County rancher. "We're either in a feast or famine. Last year we got twice as much rain as we normally do, and this year it's dry again. Our droughts used to come every six to eight years, and now it seems like they come every other year."

Rancher Pete Bonds of Saginaw, who pastures cattle in several parts of Texas, agrees. He said rainfall patterns appear to have changed across much of the state.

"What this weather pattern seems to me is a monsoonal pattern: It either rains or it doesn't," Bonds said. "It's too much or too little."

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said they're both right. The recent spate of droughts in the Lone Star State is unprecedented, he said.

"The extremes in drought conditions that Texas has experienced over the past few years are record-setting, larger than anything in the climate record going back 113 years," Nielsen-Gammon said.

Texas went from extremely dry in 2006 to the fourth-wettest period on record in 2007, as measured by the Palmer Drought Severity Index, he said. "And now we're already on our way back to very dry."

Locally, little rain has fallen since around May 1, and forecasts don't give much hope for a downpour anytime soon.

"We're basically 5 inches below normal over the last 60 days," National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Harris said last week. "We're starting off the summer very dry, and we normally don't start seeing precipitation pick up again until October."

Harris said that the eastern half of North Texas has received rain but that the western half is slipping into drought conditions.

"Basically, anywhere northeast of a line from Gainesville to Palestine has received rain," Harris said. "Anywhere southwest of that line is starting to get dry."

The state's agricultural industry is hurting from the lack of spring rain.

"The reservoirs were able to benefit from the rain last year," said Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist. "There are problems with corn and soybeans. There are problems with hay. Many of the warm-season grasses didn't green up this year because of the sparse rainfall. I think we'll see those impacts worsen as the summer progresses."

The worst conditions are in Southwest Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, which are in the midst of a severe drought.

"At this point, we're talking about a drought that is comparable to the worst droughts we've had over the last 15 years," Nielsen-Gammon said. "In Southwest Texas, West Central Texas and deep South Texas, it's comparable to 1996, 1998 and 2006, which are the worst drought years we've seen."

In West Central Texas, the weather has been unusually hot and windy, said Allan McGinty, a professor and range specialist with the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at San Angelo.

"I think the main thing is how hot it is this year," McGinty said. "We've already broke 100 [degrees] 15-16 days this year, and it has been very windy. Rangeland is suffering and, of course, cotton and grain sorghum are just sitting there."

Many ranchers are also dealing with rising fuel costs and are warily watching corn prices because of the Midwest floods.

Bonds, the Saginaw rancher, has hedged some of his fuel and hay costs. But that only goes far.

"The one thing you can't count on is the weather," Bonds said.

Still, McGinty isn't giving up hope that rain could provide some relief this summer.

"Just because it's hot and dry now is no guarantee that's going to continue throughout the summer," McGinty said. "We had a cooler-than-normal spring followed by a hotter-than-normal early summer. Anybody who predicts what's going to happen is dreaming. Texas weather is impossible to predict."

The Texas Forest Service said the dry conditions will lead to a wildfire threat across the western half of Texas.

Nick Harrison, a regional fire coordinator for the agency, said fires have continued to burn across far West Texas. But he expects the fire threat to spread as the summer progresses.

He said area fire departments have begun seeing an increase in grass fires over the last several weeks.

"We're very concerned because we still have a lot of grass that grew last year," Harrison said. "We're very concerned the dryness will move back across the state toward the central part of the state."

The Edwards Aquifer Authority has called for 20 percent cutbacks in water consumption for much of Central Texas, including San Antonio and San Marcos. In North Texas, last year's rainfall has helped lakes start the summer at close to capacity.

In the Oklahoma Panhandle just north of the Texas line, drought conditions are starting to draw comparisons to the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said the trends are "nothing to hang your hat on" but enough to cause concern.


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