Texas is suffering through a drought that has the potential to be as damaging as any in the state's history. Though the severity of drought conditions vary by region, it is fair to say that every Texas farmer and rancher has been hurt by the lack of rain. To make matters worse, support for farmers and ranchers in these tough times is limited to emergency federal aid and a handful of educational and loan programs that are regulated by the state.
A drought of this magnitude has inevitable economic consequences. Earlier this year, agricultural economists at Texas A&M University predicted that Texas farmers and ranchers would pump nearly $15 billion into the state's economy. Now these figures are being lowered, as a result of the drought's blistering of Texas' agricultural landscape. A May 1996 study by Texas A&M estimated that total agricultural value could fall by as much as $2.4 billion unless the severity of the drought lessens. Producer losses at these levels could translate to a decline of about 0.5 percent of the expected 1996 Texas Gross State Product of $527.2 billion. In terms of negative effects on the Texas economy overall, the drought would rate as roughly equal to the December 1994 peso devaluation which devastated border retail sales and slowed Texas exports to Mexico.
How Bad Is It?
Average annual precipitation in the state varies from 8 inches in West Texas to more than 60 inches in the eastern part of the state. Severe drought conditions in East Texas would be considered a wet season in West Texas. While there is some degree of drought in at least one region of the state every year, Texas is now experiencing a drought across the entire state. (See Figure 1.)
Climatologists say that a drought is difficult to define because much depends on the normal climate of an area. Simple definitions such as a "prolonged and abnormal moisture deficiency" or a "worrisome lack of rain" have proved to be as effective as any.
The Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), an index of meteorological drought that takes into account hydrologic factors such as precipitation, evaporation and soil moisture, showed in mid-May that all of the state's 10 climatic regions were in a stage of drought, ranging from moderate to extreme. The index, developed in 1965, is used extensively as a measure of drought for agricultural and water resource management. In measuring the lack of moisture supply, PDSI is most effective in gauging the effects on soil moisture conditions. Although particularly useful in agriculture, it is not generally used in determining the status of short-term droughts.
WeatherData Inc., a Kansas-based private weather service, indicates that this drought may be severe and "will likely continue, in one form or other, into at least 1998 or 1999." 1
George Bomar, meteorologist and director of the Weather Modification Program at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), agrees that the current conditions may be long-term. According to Bomar, Texas normally experiences "long-running extended droughts that are of the severity of the 1950s drought every 20 to 25 years, so we are overdue for a drought of that magnitude." The 1950s drought is considered the "drought of record" for most areas of the state and is used as a measure for water planning, much like the 100-year flood is a benchmark for land-use planners.
Not all weather experts agree on the weather outlook. Larry Peabody of the National Weather Service in New Braunfels refers to current conditions as an "extended dry spell" and considers "drought" an overstatement. Peabody points out that Central Texas received higher than average rainfall in 1995, and while the first quarter of 1996 was below average, the second quarter is normally the wettest of the year. However, the National Weather Service notes that "there have been five disastrous drought years in the region since records have been kept...(and) this year shows signs of evolving into that class." 2
In the Rio Grande Valley, residents are into their fourth consecutive year of drought, according to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB).
Richard Hagan, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Cameron County, says that in South Texas "...this year will be recorded as having tied for the second driest first quarter since records have been kept. To make matters worse, history dictates that more than 80 percent of the time, if the first quarter of the year is dry, the rest of the year will be dry."
Robert Slattery, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Amarillo, reports that his region has received less than one inch of rain since October 31, 1995, and "it has been the driest six months on record even dating back to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s." 3
Some meteorologists speculate this drought could last a couple of more years. These estimates are based on weather patterns and historical data that show all of the warning signs pointing to a long-term problem. For example, "La Niña" is currently active. La Niña is a high-pressure wind pattern that cools water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, thereby weakening storm systems that bring rain to the U.S. La Niña is the opposite cycle of El Niño, the more famous Gulf Stream weather pattern blamed for causing floods. La Niña patterns have not been as consistent in bringing dry weather as El Niño has been in causing wet weather, so some scientists hesitate to say that this phenomena is the main reason for the present conditions.
Can We Change the Weather?
In 1967, the Texas Legislature passed the Texas Weather Modification Act. The TNRCC is responsible for the weather modification program, which permits "cloud seeding" and promotes research and technology related to weather modification.
On the local level, the Colorado River Municipal Water District in the Big Spring area has had this type of program for 25 years. The West Texas Weather Modification Association (WTWMA) has received a permit from TNRCC to begin a cloud seeding program in a seven-county area. WTWMA proposes to cover 5.2 million acres in the cloud seeding program at a cost of $300,000 to $400,000, or about 7 cents per acre.
TNRCC estimates that for every $1 dollar invested in cloud seeding, there is a $20 to $25 return in production of the land. TNRCC also found that, contrary to popular belief, cloud seeding tends to prevent flash floods and heavy rains by producing gentle rains over a long period of time.
In 1970, then Governor Preston Smith initiated a statewide cloud seeding program for three months. In July of that year, Texas suffered flooding, and the cloud seeding experiment was blamed. No data exist to back that claim, but the event left cloud seeding stigmatized. Some people go so far as to say it is equivalent to "playing God."
Agricultural Producers Hit Hard
TWDB has different classifications for drought conditions: a climatic drought denotes a lack of precipitation; an agricultural drought means that dry-land farming and ranching are affected; a hydrological drought occurs when municipal water supplies are affected; and socio-economic drought describes conditions when the economy is affected.
With numerous counties being declared eligible for federal assistance programs, an agricultural drought is most evident in Texas at this time. Major agricultural losses are already occurring. Wheat production is expected to fall by 24 percent from 1995 levels. This would represent a loss in production value of more than $71 million. Brooks Gunter, a Panhandle farmer, said that "because of the drought, the constant windstorms carry an extra wallop, clearing the land of the tender young wheat plants, sweeping away $25,000 from a single field."
It is too early to tell how other crops will be affected, but if the wheat harvest is any indication to dryland farmers, this could be a serious "belt-tightening" year.
Cattle raisers are in even worse shape than farmers, because the drought has compounded their problems. Their pasturelands are in such poor condition, they have been unable to provide enough feed for their livestock. The rush to sell cattle is occurring during a period of oversupply so that producers face a loss with the currently low market prices. Moreover, ranchers in counties west and northwest of Fort Worth lost thousands of acres of pasture to grass fires fueled by high winds and dry conditions.
Livestock production had been expected to earn $6.7 billion this year, more than one-third of all agricultural earnings in 1996. Texas A&M economists expect this number to decline by $838 million or 12.5 percent.
Around the state, farmers are planting crops used to feed livestock on fields previously used for rice, cotton and other crops. Market prices for these feed crops are high, due in part to the drought. In Wharton County, as many as 20,000 acres of rice fields were planted with corn or grain sorghum, and some Matagorda County farmers have plowed up pastureland to plant more corn. 4
Federal Drought Assistance
Well over half of the 254 counties in the state are eligible for some type of emergency drought assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Producers in counties approved for emergency drought assistance have access to several programs including: 1) the Emergency Loan Program, also known as the Secretarial Disaster Declaration, 2) the soon-to-end Emergency Livestock Feed Program and 3) the Emergency Grazing Program.
The Emergency Loan Program provides eligible participants with low interest loans through the Farm Service Agency for agricultural losses due to drought and other devastating conditions. Currently, 115 Texas counties have been declared eligible for this program.
The Emergency Livestock Feed Program (LFP) provides producers with up to 50 percent of the cost of feed in times of crisis. This program replaces only the feed that would have been produced on the applicants' farms if the emergency conditions did not exist. As of June 1, 170 Texas counties are eligible for this program. Nationally, this program provided more than $75 million in federal relief to farmers and ranchers during the 1994 crop year, and Texas producers received almost $12 million.
The Emergency Grazing Program, available in 72 counties, applies only to producers participating in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The Emergency Grazing Program allows eligible producers to graze their cattle on land that they have enrolled in the CRP. Producers enrolled in the CRP agree to plant cropland susceptible to erosion with soil-stabilizing grasses or trees to conserve the land. They do this in exchange for annual rental payments from the federal government. Only in severe times, such as drought, are eligible producers able to graze their cattle on these lands, which helps to reduce the costs of feeding their cattle.
President Clinton and the USDA have been working together in recent months to provide much needed federal drought aid to agricultural producers. As lack of rain has contributed to mass crop failure and high feed prices that have forced cattlemen to sell off large portions of their herds, federal assistance has come in several forms:
- On April 30, President Clinton ordered a massive beef buy to "bolster beef prices." This beef will be served in school lunch programs during the next school year.
- The USDA approved haying and grazing on certain Conservation Reserve Program acres.
- The federal government also promised to work harder to export more beef, to make sure that ranchers get adequate credit from lenders, and to continue monitoring the situation.
- The President's latest initiative, announced May 30, will provide an estimated $70 million in relief to Oklahoma and Texas feed grain producers. The President extended the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) to cover both insured and uninsured producers of failed grain crops. The NAP program was originally set up to provide crop loss protection for producers of crops that are not eligible for crop insurance.
State and Local Responses
Several state loan programs are available to help farmers with irrigation improvements and water conservation. TWDB administers the Agricultural Water Conservation Loan Program, established in 1985 with authority to issue up to $200 million in agricultural water conservation bonds. The program operated primarily on the initial $5 million appropriation until 1994, when the TWDB issued $14 million in bonds and made loans to seven districts at reduced interest rates. Districts may use these loans to make improvements to their irrigation facilities, and districts also serve as lenders, making loans available to individual farmers and ranchers. The loans may be used for capital equipment or materials, labor, preparation costs and installation costs to improve water-use efficiency in existing irrigation systems. The funds may also be used to prepare irrigated lands to be converted to dryland conditions and to prepare drylands for more efficient use of natural precipitation.
The Water Demand/Drought Management Technical Advisory Committee, made up of representatives from the TWDB, TNRCC and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, prepared a drought plan for the 1996 Consensus State Water Plan. The Texas Water Code directs the TWDB's executive administrator to prepare and maintain a comprehensive state water plan, which may be amended or modified as conditions change, as a guide for the "orderly development and management" of the state's water resources.
The water plan included the following recommendations:
- The Legislature should enact a policy statement to make state drought management a priority in water planning;
- The governor and legislative leaders should review a conceptual planning framework developed by the committee and make final recommendations to the Legislature and various water agencies to implement this state policy and suggested framework, and
- The Legislature should designate a state agency for the continuous monitoring and reporting of water supply and drought information. This agency would serve as a clearinghouse and technical assistance entity for coordinating and disseminating drought planning and response information.
The Legislature did not adopt any of the recommendations, so the TWDB has informally assumed some of the responsibilities.
Governor George W. Bush's staff, TWDB and TNRCC developed a state plan which the Governor announced on May 30. The plan included the following recommendations:
- TWDB should monitor drought conditions and water supplies in the state;
- TWDB should conduct outreach programs and provide technical assistance to local entities by providing public water suppliers with workshops and training on conservation and minimizing the impact of water restrictions;
- A public awareness program that includes public service announcements advising people of the need for water conservation should be implemented. The state's "Watersmart Camp" program, designed to promote water conservation in the Valley, should be expanded statewide, and
- TWDB will create a "Small Community Emergency Loan Program," expected to be in place by July, to provide funding to small cities for emergency repairs. Loans are expected to be processed as quickly as one week after application. Availability of funds for the program is expected to be limited to a total of $500,000.
In addition to state involvement, more than 200 Texas cities and/or counties have emergency water management plans. These plans describe the criteria that trigger different stages of emergency response for water conservation. They also describe what actions are available in times of emergency, such as droughts. This could include actions as simple as public service announcements to more drastic measures, such as serving citations for excess water usage during times of emergency.
An informal survey of selected cities by the Comptroller's Office found that:
Dallas has a water management plan. Currently, the city has not implemented any emergency stages, although officials are monitoring the situation and promoting water conservation.
San Antonio has a water management plan in effect. The Edward's Aquifer, the city's source of water, is at a level 30 feet lower than historical levels during this time of year. San Antonio is in Stage III of its drought plan, which aims at achieving a 40 percent reduction in normal water usage.
Austin has a water conservation ordinance that promotes voluntary conservation every year from May to September. Customers of the city water utilities are to limit water usage to amounts absolutely necessary for health, business and outdoor water use. The city manager has the authority to declare mandatory compliance, which may be implemented in stages, depending on the severity of the drought and the stress on the municipal water system.
Harlingen has a water management plan. Although Falcon and Amistad lakes are well below normal levels, an emergency stage has not been declared because area wells and the Rio Grande River are at adequate levels at this time.
Lubbock has a water plan that goes into effect if more than 85 million gallons of water a day are used for three consecutive days. The city came close to implementing the emergency stage last year when consumption reached 80 million gallons of water in one day.
El Paso has had a water conservation ordinance in place since 1991. Limitations are placed on the watering of lawns year round. In addition, between April 1 and September 30 of each year, there is a time restriction on the assigned watering days. Violators may be penalized $50 to $500 if a citation is issued by an inspector from the El Paso Water Utility Department.
1 "Drought Predicted for Plains, Texas," Austin American-Statesman (March 13,1996) p.A1.
2 "3-Month Rain Total Latest Way to Say Dry," Austin American-Statesman (April 5, 1996), p. A1.
3 "U.S. Official to View Drought Damage," Dallas Morning News (April 26, 1996), p. 37A.
4 "Going with the Grain; New Crops Planted to Fill Feed Shortage," Houston Chronicle (April 13, 1996), p.1, Business.
1. State officials should persuade the USDA to extend the Emergency Livestock Feed Program past August 31 in those Texas counties where it is necessary. In addition, the 24 Texas counties dropped from the program on May 31 should be re-admitted.
The Emergency Livestock Feed Program (LFP) was implemented in 1949 to assist farmers and ranchers in purchasing feed for their cattle during "unusually tough times." On April 4, 1996, President Clinton signed the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 that among other things, terminates the LFP at the end in May. However, with the tough times that the agriculture industry has had in Texas and elsewhere due to drought conditions, the program was extended until August 31, 1996. On this date, funding for the program will expire, but the USDA could extend the program another 90 days.
Ranchers in 170 Texas counties currently participate in LFP. Initially there were 194 Texas counties eligible to participate in the 1996 program. On May 31, 1996, 24 eligible counties in far West Texas were dropped from the program. Farmers are only allowed to sign up for this program at the beginning of each crop year--or regular planting season. The crop year in these 24 West Texas counties began after the deadline for enrollment in the program had passed.
2. The state should renew efforts to market the Agricultural Water Conservation Loan Program and inform producers about the availability of funds.
A 1993 report by Ronald Lacewell of Texas A&M University and Eduardo Segarra of Texas Tech University titled "Farmers, Lenders and Water Districts Response to Texas' Low Interest Loan Program for Water Conservation in Agriculture," found that as of December 1991, the Agricultural Water Conservation Loan Program had made almost 200 loans worth more than $6 million and involving 51,000 acres. The report estimated the program was responsible for a 31 percent improvement in water efficiency. Currently, $14 million in bonds have been issued of the $200 million authorized.
While the program has been successful when used, a significant number of producers still do not know about the program or have access to it. This is despite the TWDB's adopting a number of the report's recommendations and conducting a marketing program to inform producers of the available funds.
The program must be administered on the local level by water districts. In areas where water districts choose not to participate or do not have the financial expertise to manage loan programs, producers do not have access to the program. The authority to administer the funds on the local level should be expanded to include other entities. This action would require legislative action and should be considered in 1997.
The bonds authorized by the state for this program are not tax exempt because of federal tax laws, increasing the cost of the bond sales by as much as two percent. State statutes should be changed to allow the bonds to be tax exempt. This recommendation would require legislative action and should be considered in 1997.
3. The state should encourage broader marketing of the "Linked Deposit Program" funds to assist farmers to increase the efficiency of their irrigation systems.
The Texas Agricultural Finance Authority, through the Texas Department of Agriculture, has funds available for water conservation programs through their "Linked Deposit Program." Most of these loans, however, are made for other allowable costs, such as innovative or diversified agricultural production, value-added processing and marketing.
4. The LBB should consider additional funding for the "Small Community Emergency Loan Program" administered by the Texas Water Development Board.
Small rural communities and water districts are usually the least prepared to handle emergency repairs to over-burdened water systems. The Small Community Emergency Loan Program would provide loans to these entities, allowing them to complete emergency repairs almost immediately. TWDB has identified $500,000 to be used in the program, but depending on the extent of the drought, it may need additional funds.
5. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), at Comptroller Sharp's request, has this week asked its district engineers to promote their discretionary program allowing farmers and ranchers to cut and bale grass from state rights-of-way.
TxDOT District Engineers may allow farmers and ranches to cut and bale grass from state rights-of-way in certain situations. Clearly, with the severity of the current drought, TxDOT should make every effort to inform the agricultural community about this potential source of feed.
High Plains Underground Water District, LubbockThe High Plains area is just about as dry as it ever has been. Existing weather conditions are comparable to those of the 1950s, and are deteriorating every day that does not bring rain. Farmers in the region are irrigating as much as they can so that they can plant their crops, but the dry, windy conditions in the High Plains region are making it harder to get the soil to it's proper moisture levels. The good news is that the water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer, the water source that farmers in the region use to irrigate, are higher than expected. This can be attributed to the high levels of rainfall that the region received in late 1995 and to greater irrigation efficiency that helps eliminate water waste associated with wind drift, deep soil penetration and evaporation.
Jim Quantanilla, Extension Agent
Hidalgo County Agriculture Extension Service, Edinburg
The southern area of the state is in very poor condition. There is not any grass on the pastureland. Hay is so scarce that cattlemen actually fist-fight over it. Some will even flag down trucks carrying hay and offer drivers two to three times the actual worth of the hay. If it doesn't rain soon, the outlook for the area is even worse, because peak irrigation time is just around the corner and the irrigation district is only at 20 percent of its capacity. Still, the drought situation in the area has not gotten as devastating as it was in the 1950s, but it could.
Jack Hunter, Extension Agent
Colorado County Agriculture Extension Service, Columbus
The farming and ranching sectors are in bad shape in the Gulf Coast region. Feed is hard to come by, and crops are barely growing. The county is about 8 inches behind in total rainfall this year, and some areas haven't had any rain since last June. Ranchers are seeking alternatives to what they regularly feed their livestock because, like in the majority of Texas counties, there isn't any hay to be found.
Terrell Pinkston, Assistant Manager
Rain and Hail Insurance, Southwest Division, Amarillo
Rain and Hail Insurance, a federally regulated crop insurance company that deals specifically with crop insurance, has handled 1,600 claims from farmers suffering from drought this year. This is 13 percent more drought claims than were handled by this time in 1994. There are always drought claims in Texas since it is such a large state, but 1995 and 1996 have been particularly dry for Texas producers.
Steve Munday, Executive Vice President
Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Fort Worth
The drought in Texas is almost equivalent to that of the 1950s. If you take a statewide look at the situation, you will find that producers in far West Texas have been suffering through these conditions for much of the last three years, and every part of the state is suffering to some degree. East Texans are under quite a bit of pressure because they aren't used to dealing with drought conditions, and they are definitely having to face them now. These conditions, combined with low market prices and a lot of competition, are making this an especially difficult time for cattlemen.
Rancher Noah Curry: "We don't believe in rainmakers."
Starbuck: "What do ya' believe in, mistah? Dyin' cattle?"
The Rainmaker, Paramount Pictures, 1956
At the turn of the century, they were called cloud milkers or pluviculturists. Either way, it meant "rainmaker."
Cynics compared them to "snake-oil salesmen," and admittedly most of these so-called miracle workers didn't give the art of rainmaking a good name. The more dedicated of the trade, however, were driven by a desire to transform dry prairies and drought-stricken areas into lush Edens with rain generated by artificial means.
Some of the most interesting rain experiments took place on the dry West Texas plains in Post. The town was built in 1907 by C.W. Post, the millionaire New York cereal manufacturer who owned land in Post and lived there several months a year. In an effort to supply the 3,000-plus inhabitants with a steady supply of drinking water and irrigation water, Post pioneered a technique that he called "rain battling."
Having read that some of the major battles during the Napoleonic and Civil wars were followed by rain, Post speculated that the ear-shattering noise from exploding cannons was able to shake rain from the skies. The innovative businessman believed he could duplicate this phenomenon on his own ranch land.
In his first attempts in 1910, Post tried tying sticks of dynamite to kites and exploding them at great heights. Next, he experimented with setting off dynamite charges along the edge of the Caprock escarpment, the highest point on his property.
In these rain battles, Post and his crews would fire off two pounds of dynamite every three minutes from 12 locations along the Caprock. The first episode lasted for one hour but yielded no rain. Undaunted, Post staged a bigger battle, and this time rain fell. In 1911, Post created a tumultuous event using 24,000 pounds of dynamite--eight times the previous amount. This battle reenactment produced a rainstorm that brought hail the size of "hens eggs."
Post staged a total of 21 of these rain battles at a cost of $50,000. His attempts were about 40 percent effective. After his death in 1914, the family discontinued the rainmaking battles, calling them a waste of money.
In retrospect, modern scientists say that Post's successes had less to do with noise than with the fact that the powder released during the detonations contained certain particulants around which moisture will condense.
Today the process of rainmaking is called weather modification. The most common method is cloud seeding--the timely seeding of potentially rain-producing clouds with silver iodide.
According to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), this process allows the clouds to "live longer, process more moisture and produce significantly more rainfall." TNRCC reports that seeding contributes to widespread, longer-lasting rains.
With current weather modification, scientists and meteorologists use airplanes, radar and computers to ensure maximum effectiveness.
This year's drought, reaching from the nation's Midwest into Mexico, is focusing new attention on weather modification projects; in fact, several cloud seeding efforts are scheduled to run throughout the summer in West and Southwest Texas. Oklahoma and Coahuila, Mexico, also are funding large cloud seeding projects.
Sources: John Sharp, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts; Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission; and the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University.