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Relentless drought takes heavy toll for third straight year

PARCHED PASTURES offer little for cattle to feed on
In 2011, Corpus Christi endured the second driest year on record. Very little of the area’s corn, cotton or grain sorghum came out of the ground. Farmers and ranchers have limited options.  

Relentless. That’s the way Dan Fromme, assistant professor and Texas AgriLife Extension agronomist at Corpus Christi, describes the persistent drought that has devastated cropland and pastures for the last two years and promises to do so again in 2013.

But it really goes back farther than that, Fromme says. “If we look back to 2006, we had drought that year, and also in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012. And we are in our third straight year of drought now.

“Only 2007 and 2010 were wet years,” he says. “We made a record crop in 2010. Average rainfall for this area (Nueces and adjoining counties) is about 30 inches a year. In 2011, we got 12 inches; in 2012 we had 18 inches; so far this year, we’ve had from one to two inches, depending on location.”

Lake level is down to almost 30 percent of normal, and the area still has summer to endure. Corpus Christi is under stage two water restrictions.

In 2011, Corpus Christi endured the second driest year on record. “Only 1917 was drier,” Fromme says. “The period from October through March has been the second driest ever. We are 12 inches below normal.

“And there is no relief in sight.” Recent National Weather Service forecasts indicate little hope that rainfall will be any more plentiful for the foreseeable future. It’s already too late for 2013 summer crops, mostly cotton, corn and grain sorghum in this area.

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Folks flying into Corpus Christi this time of year typically see expanses of green as those crops should be well on their way to covering the black soil of South Texas. This trip, nothing green greeted passengers peering out airplane windows.

And driving from the Corpus Christi Airport west, toward Robstown, the usually green fields were blowing dust as brisk winds blew the heavy, gray clouds that appeared to hold moisture rapidly across the sky and out of sight.

“All spring, it has looked like this, “Fromme says, “cloudy and windy but no rain. If we got 12 inches of rain now, it would all just soak into the soil. The ground is that depleted. Not only do we not have moisture to germinate seed, but the subsurface moisture is totally depleted.”

Too dry for seed to germinate

He says little planted seed germinated this year. “Very little of the area’s corn, cotton or grain sorghum came out of the ground.” Most farmers will rely on insurance to cover part of their losses. And most made little last year or the year before.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Fromme says. “It seems to get worse every year. It is relentless.”

Less than 1 percent of the area’s cropland is irrigated, so persistent drought destroys any chance of making a crop.

It’s been hard on livestock producers as well. “Herd size has been reduced significantly or is non-existent,” Fromme says. “Some have sold out completely. It could take years to build herds back.”

Nueces, Jim Wells, Kleberg and the western part of San Patricio counties have been hardest hit. “The Valley is also in bad shape. Uvalde is bad. Just about everywhere is bad from here to Houston to Uvalde. The area north of Houston is in better shape.”

Farmers and ranchers have limited options. Fromme says range and livestock specialists have offered seminars on reducing herd size and bringing rangeland back into production. Row crop farmers have few options. “We can talk about alternative crops if we get rain late, but with the current forecast, that doesn’t look promising.”

Cover crops to protect the soil from wind erosion are not options since moisture is inadequate to support them. Fromme says a few farmers occasionally use sand fighters to limit blowing soil but they can’t do much to protect the land. “But the soil is resilient. If we get rain, it will respond.”

He says farmers also are a durable lot. “They just say, ‘there’s always next year.’ They are resilient, too.”


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