Drought Expands Dramatically in Texas, Losses Mount

By Carey Gillam | May 16, 2011

Another dry week in the southern United States has driven the spread of a devastating drought further across Texas and neighboring states, promising to add to economic losses that could top $3 billion.

Texas, suffering its longest dry spell on record, saw the highest level of drought — dubbed “exceptional” by climatologists — jump from 26 percent of the state to 48 percent over the last week, a report released Thursday by a consortium of national climate experts said.

So far at least 9,000 wildfires have destroyed or damaged more than 400 homes and scorched 2.2 million acres (890,000 hectares) across Texas, according to state officials who have asked for federal assistance.

The region’s new wheat crop has largely withered as other crops being planted now thirst for moisture, while pastures and rangeland are so poor they cannot sustain grazing cattle.

“It certainly has been rough here,” said Brent Bean, an extension agronomist at Texas A&M University. “We need rain. It is ironic that the Midwest and the Mississippi Delta are getting all that rain and we’re the ones that need it.”

Farmers have nearly given up on harvesting much of the state’s new wheat crop, three-quarters of which is rated by agricultural officials as in poor or very poor condition. Corn planting, under way now, is requiring heavy irrigation, which is costly, and water supplies are dwindling.

Texas is a key growing state for wheat, and generally produces 5 to 10 percent of the country’s winter crop. Last year’s winter wheat crop in Texas totaled 127.5 million bushels, worth an estimated $644 million. This year, prices for wheat are higher, but the state is expected to reap less than half that amount.

March had the lowest rainfall totals ever for Texas and in April they were the fifth driest on record, according to state climatology data. The October-April period marked the driest seven consecutive months on record for Texas going back to 1895, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Agricultural officials in Texas have estimated losses will amount to more than $3 billion and set up hotlines to seek assistance for farmers and ranchers.

While Texas, an epicenter now for wildfires and crop losses, is taking the brunt of the drought, surrounding states are also suffering.

The drought “dramatically expanded” across southwestern Oklahoma and southeastern New Mexico as well as Texas, according to the Drought Monitor report issued Thursday.

Precipitation over the last 90 days was 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) below normal throughout southeastern and east-central Texas, the report showed. In parts of southeastern New Mexico, no measurable precipitation has been recorded for three to six months.

As the drought persists, water restrictions are being imposed in some parts of Texas and Oklahoma. Fire danger remains high for not only Texas but also as far north as Colorado and Kansas.

The drought in the Southwest and Southern Plains comes even as persistent rains and flooding are plaguing parts of the U.S. Midwest and lower Mississippi Valley.

(Editing by Dale Hudson)

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