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Farmers are asking if El Niño is here to stay, and when will the rains end

MUD keeps tractors idle Farm equipment is idled as field work is shut down by the rains
<p>MUD keeps tractors idle. Farm equipment is idled as field work is shut down by the rains.</p>
El Ni&ntilde;o events traditionally can bring heavy rains to parts of Texas and the greater Southwest.

It's not very often that farmers and ranchers complain about the rain. For them, not only is water the essence of life, it is paramount to the success of their agricultural operations. But when is too much rain enough?

That's a question more and more farmers are asking in the Texas Coastal Bend as heavy rains have flooded just about every field, with many remaining virtually underwater.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center (CPC), the long-awaited El Niño, or Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event, is the cause of so much rain across large areas of Texas this spring season. CPC's Michelle L’Heureux agrees sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific remained substantially above average during April and into May. And she says there is still a lot of warmer-than-average water below the surface in the upper 300 meters of the ocean, helping to ensure that the above-average sea surface temperatures will continue for at least the next few months.

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El Niño events traditionally can bring heavy rains to parts of Texas and the greater Southwest.

“It tends to cause the jet stream to be farther south than normal, which means we may get more rain events, generally cool temperatures and lots of run-off, which would be good for reservoir levels,” John Nielsen-Gammen, Texas State Climatologist, said.

But he warns heavy and continual rains can, of course, create hardships for the state's agricultural producers and can also cause excessive and damaging flooding in rural and urban areas.

According to NOAA, the atmospheric response to the warmer waters in the equatorial Pacific that began in February strengthened through March and April. That created stronger Trade winds that have been more westerly than average, and upper-level winds that have been weaker than average, generating more rain in the central equatorial Pacific. These are all signs of a weakened "Walker Circulation," which is generally present during El Niño events. Heavy thunderstorms and rain showers across Texas over the weekend are attributed to this type of ENSO event.

The Coastal Bend of Texas and coastal areas in southeast Texas have particularly been hit harder by the developing El Niño event. Over the last week alone, some areas in the Coastal Bend received between 10 and 15 inches of rain, specifically in southeast Corpus Christi, southern stretches of Nueces County, as well as portions of Duval and McMullen counties.

Officially, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Corpus Christi recorded 8.12 inches of rain so far this month, but reporting stations across a wider area of the Coastal Bend registered as much as 15 inches of rain in May so far. These rains followed an exceptionally wet March and April. According to the NWS, as much as 21 inches of rain have fallen in parts of the Coastal Bend over the last 60 days, bringing rain accumulation this year well over seasonal averages.

The heavy rains resulted not only in late planting schedules in recent weeks but many fields are still too wet to work; many fields are not yet planted and may not be this year according to county agents up and down the coast.

Problems associated with heavy rain, however, stretch far beyond the middle coastal region. Parts of Southeast Texas have actually received greater rainfall amounts and even Deep South Texas has seen planting delays and excessive wet fields. In Central Texas up to 17 inches of rain have fallen over the last 90 days; 14 inches in San Antonio, and even Del Rio has received 8.5 inches over the same 90 day period.

Desperately needed rain has also fallen in the Texas plains, in North Central Texas and even in areas desperately parched, like the Wichita Falls area and in El Paso County.

Texas AgriLife officials report areas across the state that were under moderate to exceptional drought have declined from 83 percent last year to about 30 percent according to the latest drought monitor released last week, before the heavy weekend storms.

One of the benefits of the steady rains have been that reservoirs across much of Texas have seen increasing levels from the wet spring. In the Coastal Bend for example, two reservoirs that supply all the water needs for Nueces County have reached higher levels than realized in several years. The combined capacity for Choke Canyon Reservoir (CCR) and Lake Corpus Christi (LCC) Reservoir stood at a capacity of only 34.8 percent on April 17, but jumped to 47.4 combined capacity on May 17 (Sunday), and levels are expected to continue rising early this week. Lake Corpus Christi was expected to reach 100 percent capacity by late Monday (May 18).

Nielsen-Gammon said where rain has been the heaviest, the ground is unable to soak up more rainfall, so with each additional storm, depleted lakes are apt to see rising water levels. And as one lake fills, other watersheds downstream will benefit from the runoff.

“May is normally one of the wettest months of the year, but what we’ve had is even unusual for May,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

Too much rain is bad for farming. Crop experts say excessive rain can be as bad as not enough rain when it comes to crop health. An increase in insect and weed pressure and the possibility of fungus can all help to destroy a crop under extreme wet conditions.

Bobby McCool, County Agent in Aransas and San Patricio counties says this much rain is bad for not only those that are trying to plant crops, but also for those that have already planted, a sentiment shared by more than one Coastal Bend farmer. 

"We don't know if this crop is going to make it or not," said South Texas Farmer Bobby Nedbalek in San Patricio County. "If we have to replant, we're running out of time for that to be reasonable."

Late planting brings with it a host of problems: a bigger insect population, summer heat and missed planting deadlines. The Risk Management Agency (RMA) sets planting deadlines for crop insurance eligibility, and that deadline started as early as March 31 in South Texas.

The amount of precipitation may diminish in the summer months say forecasters but, “in the fall and winter we should return to enhanced chances of above-normal rainfall,” Nielsen-Gammon added, an assessment shared by the NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

NOAA forecasters say this consistent atmospheric coupling is a change from the pattern we saw throughout 2014, when conditions changed from week-to-week. With a climate phenomenon like the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), forecasters expect to see more of a persistent pattern. They warn this doesn’t mean that the El Niño atmospheric conditions are always present every week, but that they are on average over the season.

Nearly all computer model forecasts predict a continuation of the warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures through the end of 2015.

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