Water Short And Temperatures Hot Before Spring

Many parts of Texas and Oklahoma were well into a third year of drought before spring even arrived with hot temperatures in winter

Published on: Mar 26, 2013

At mid-March, when it was technically "winter" and still a week ahead of spring, temperatures soared into the 90s in Texas and Oklahoma, indicative of skipping springtime all together and making a "Texas two-step" winter-to-summer transition.

In West Central Texas, the wheat crop was barely hanging on. The Abilene region, which saw a huge rainfall deficit in the 2011 historic drought and a deficit again in 2012, fell far below average rainfall during the first part of 2013 as well.

While the High Plains-Panhandle region caught some heavy snow during the first quarter of this year, the Rolling Plains did not, and most of the rest of the state remained dry except for a few areas that caught isolated showers. Some in East Texas, that had received scattered rainfall, top dressed grain fields with fertilizer in hopes of a green-up.

TAKE A DIP. Cattle that still have water in ponds and stock tanks are among the fortunate ones in much of drought-stricken Texas and Oklahoma.
TAKE A DIP. Cattle that still have water in ponds and stock tanks are among the fortunate ones in much of drought-stricken Texas and Oklahoma.

Where it was available, producers attempted to graze stocker cattle on wheat pasture for forage. But the grazing was extremely limited in most places.

Crop outlook
Cotton acreage is expected to be down 25% this year from last in Texas—although higher prices for cotton could change that. But that would still mean about 5 million acres of cotton in the state.

Since the original projection at the beginning of the year, prices have improved some for cotton.

"Prices have gone up a little for cotton and come down a little for grain crops, so my guess is that the National Cotton Council (acreage) survey hopefully is the worst-case scenario," says Gaylon Morgan, Texas AgriLife Extension state cotton specialist, College Station.

Steve Verett of Plains Cotton Growers, Lubbock, says precipitation improved over some parts of the South Plains during March, and that could mean there will not be as large a decrease in cotton acreage as the early survey indicated.

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Morgan also hears a lot of talk about sticking with more wheat—or increasing grain sorghum acreage—on both the High Plains and Rolling Plains if prices remain strong or increase for those crop alternatives.

Nevertheless, Taylor County AgriLife Extension Agent Robert Pritz, Abilene, says that after mid-March, wheat was under great stress in his area. Although wheat is a very resilient crop, Pritz says it will need a lot of rain in both April and May to mature into a good harvest this spring.

But the Coastal Bend of Texas and Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border have remained under extremely dry conditions, Morgan says.

Water is tight
Dr. Guy Fipps, Texas AgriLife Extension Service irrigation engineer, College Station, says water shortages not just for farmers but entire cities are shaping up this year in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

"In 2009, the area experienced the worst drought in decades, as did much of the state, but this year is shaping up to be much worse for area residents," Fipps says. 

This year is different from 2009 conditions, he assures.

"In 2009, there was a drought, but there was plenty of water in the reservoir systems, so there was irrigation water," he says. "This year, there is almost no water in the reservoir systems."

More than 1 million people live in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Common row crops include the earliest production of cotton in Texas and the nation, along with corn, grain sorghum, and sugarcane. The "Valley" also is highly recognized for its commercial vegetable production, including onions, spinach, peppers and potatoes, along with citrus.

Fipps says irrigation water is extremely limited in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

"Most of the irrigation districts have informed the farmers that they will have one or two irrigations this year," Fipps says. "Three of the districts have informed their municipal water contracts that they will likely be out of water by April of May, and will not be able to supply municipal water. This is quite serious."

International politics also are involved, as through treaty, Mexico and the U.S. share the water of the Rio Grande.

"The U.S. side is putting pressure on Mexico to get them to release some of the water they owe the U.S. so it can be used to maintain municipal water supplies this year," Fipps notes. "So it should be very interesting to see how this unfolds in the next two or three months."

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In recent years, Fipps' engineering work has been aimed at modernizing canals to conserve what precious water is available.

"Conveyance efficiencies vary from as much as 90 percent in one of the smaller irrigation districts, to as low as 60 percent in many of the larger ones," Fipps points out. "That means you have anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the water lost before it even reaches the field."

In Oklahoma, especially in the southwest part of the state, the situation also has been bleak for water. Farmers again, are expected to be unable to irrigate from Lake Lugert near Altus, and in fact, the lake is lower than even old-timers have ever seen in their lifetimes.

Speaking at mid-March to the 2013 Oklahoma Peanut Expo, Gary McManus wished he could bring the peanut industry crowd at Quartz Mountain Resort at Lone Wolf better news and projections—but he could not.

McManus, associate state climatologist, Oklahoma Mesonet, Norman, says many ponds now have gone dry. That includes a pond where he grew up at Buffalo, Okla., which he had never seen happen before. Dead fish now are a common site.

Unfortunately, McManus reports, current long-term weather models show the ongoing drought persisting—at least through May.

The trouble with that scenario is that May once could be counted upon generally as a "rainy month."

After May, the weather typically turns hot and dry in the Great Southwest during summer.