As Texas’ 2011 drought and heat wave exacted its brutal toll across the state, and then as the drought dragged on and on, it appeared that policy makers would pay heed and respond forcefully when this year’s legislative session convened.
That may yet happen, but not necessarily so, as was shown last Monday by the death in the House of a measure – opposed, for different reasons, by Democrats on the left and Tea Party Republicans on the right – to transfer $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day fund” for water infrastructure projects such as reservoirs and pipelines.
A Senate-passed bill, frequently mentioned as a substitute for the failed House measure, would take $5.7 billion from the rainy day fund for water, transportation and education projects. But on Thursday, House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said it was too expensive – “a no-go in the House.”
Also on Thursday, there was yet another reminder that the drought that has prompted all of the high-level attention to Texas’ growing water needs was far from over.
The latest weekly report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, produced by a government-university partnership, indicated that 98.55 percent of the state’s area was in one or another category of dryness ranging from “abnormally dry” to the driest of all, “exceptional drought.”
That was the same percentage that applied a week before. At the start of the current “water year” – last September – 90.87 percent of Texas was in one of the dry categories. One year ago – last April – the number was 81.40 percent.
“Extreme drought” and “exceptional drought,” at the top of the official dryness scale, covered most of the Panhandle and Big Bend region on Thursday’s Drought Monitor map, plus all of the southern tip of Texas, including the agriculturally rich Lower Rio Grande Valley and its cities including McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville.
The worsening water-supply situation in the Valley has been reflected by reports from the region’s media outlets.
On April 1, for instance, Harlingen’s Valley Morning Star newspaper reported:
Frank “Jo Jo” White, general manager of Hidalgo-Cameron Water District No. 9, based in Mercedes, oversees the water supply for vast tracts of farms and ranchland in the two [Hidalgo and Cameron] counties, as well as for many small cities.
White said the water situation in the Rio Grande Valley is the worst it’s been since the 1950s.
This past week, the U.S. Drought Monitor estimated that more than 98 percent of Texas is abnormally dry. The U.S. Drought Mitigation Center said 11 percent of Texas is in an exceptional drought.
Many farmers and ranchers had no water allotment left this spring, White said. Also, many cities have imposed water restrictions.
“As far as I am aware, all of the (irrigation) districts that are running short on water, the cities in those districts are already on water restrictions,” White said.
The McAllen Monitor newspaper provided an update two weeks ago that didn’t offer much hope:
The National Weather Service says the South Texas drought is the worst in modern memory, with only a 0.1 percent chance of happening over the past 120 years. Since the last major rainfall amounts in October 2010, the Valley has only seen about 30 inches of rainfall — shattering the previous record of 38 inches set over a 29-month period in the early 1950s.
The drought has blown away all prior records for its magnitude to make it a “true outlier,” said Barry Goldsmith, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Brownsville office.
The National Weather Service’s forecast models suggest the weather pattern that has contributed to the drought is likely to continue until at least the early summer. While fronts can bring a brief reprieve from the hot and dry pattern that has persisted since late 2010, the National Weather Service says it will likely take a slow-moving hurricane or tropical storm to alleviate the acute drought plaguing South Texas.
With no apparent ending point for the drought in sight, Goldsmith encouraged local officials to implement aggressive conservation plans.
This past Wednesday, a day before the latest Drought Monitor report, Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Today news service issued a report on the dire conditions and prospects for Valley agriculture:
Despite drenching rains April 28, drought-stricken row crops growers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley may be in for another disastrous year, possibly doubling their $50 million drought losses of 2006, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts in Weslaco.
“Reports of failed acres of cotton, grain sorghum and corn have not yet started coming in, but I suspect they will in the coming days and weeks,” said Dr. Luis Ribera, an AgriLife Extension agricultural economist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.
This year is shaping up to be much like 2006 when growers were challenged by an extended drought which was only made worse by a severe lack of available irrigation water from the Rio Grande, Ribera said.
“In 2006, Valley dryland growers lost 75 percent of their cotton acreage, 86 percent of their corn acreage and 43 percent of their grain sorghum acres to drought,” he said. “At 2006 market prices, losses exceeded $50 million. But market prices have more than doubled in some cases, so losses could be much higher this year, as much as $100 million.”
All indications are that area cotton growers will produce one of their smallest crops on record this year, according Danielle Sekula, an AgriLife Extension cotton integrated pest management entomologist in Weslaco.
The latest U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook from the National Weather Service, issued last week and covering May 2 through July 31, forecasts drought will “persist or intensify” in the Valley and across most of the western half of the state.
No drought is shown in a sliver of Texas bordering Louisiana, while easing of drought is predicted in the northeastern third of the state.
– Bill Dawson
Image credit: AgriLife Communications / Rod Santa Ana