DROUGHT! IS THIS THE ‘50’s REVISITED? (Posted By Mike Mecke)

(Note: has the extreme two year drought affecting mostly south and central Texas ended?  Much of the region has had good rains in September and October – but has that ENDED this drought?  We do not know yet, but pray it has………. time will tell.  Be careful of your water resources in the meantime – no, always!)


 Mike Mecke, Retired Water Specialist, Kerrville

Ranch & Rural Living

October 2009

 The severe drought affecting central and south Texas for the past two years has many across the state old enough to remember that terrible, life-changing drought immortalized in the late Elmer Kelton’s book The Time It Never Rained” wondering if this might be a repeat of the fifties?  Our recent loss of this great Texas writer is till fresh on many minds.  But, that is another story.  Those terrible years, in some areas ranging from 1948 thru the fall of 1957, made a lasting impression on Texans.  Many other Texas counties had “just” a seven year drought from 1950 to 1957.   Growing up in San Antonio during the 48-57 drought, I thought that was normal.  Many Texas rivers, creeks and lakes were dry – just as some are now.  By 1951 the drought had spread to most of Texas.  We thought it was another Noah’s flood when the drought finally broke with a welcome vengeance that fall of 57.    But, it was years too late for many farmers and ranchers across the state who were already broken in cash income, crop production, grazing and spirit.  Those were sad times in the Texas agricultural communities and we hope to never see them again.   Those awful times spurred a huge increase in the drilling of irrigation wells to take some of the risk out of farming in Texas.  Many lakes were also constructed in the next 10 to 20 years making rural water and power more secure. 

 In Texas water planning, the fifties drought is called “the drought of record” and water resources are generally planned to exceed the demand of those low rainfall years to be considered “safe”.  But, as old timers, meteorologists and drought experts tell us, Texas is no stranger to both short and long droughts.  Drought is normal in Texas and we must expect it and plan for it both in agriculture and in urban water planning.  I used to do range manage-ment planning for ranchers and always advised them to keep their base herd below the forage level of what would be grown on the ranch during drought, and then add to it with stockers or other short-term livestock in good, wet years.  Better safe than sorry! 

 The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority funded a tree ring study in 2006 to study the history of drought in Texas going back before recorded history.  The width of the spacing of tree rings tells scientists whether it was a dry year with rings close together (indicating little growth), or a wet year with widely spaced tree rings.  The study showed another ten year drought in South Central Texas from 1710 to 1717 which was worse than the drought of the fifties!  The Hill Country showed a worse one also from 1571-1580!  Boy, let’s hope and pray we never get one of those again!

 Similar tree ring studies in the West Texas mountains and in Arizona have shown major droughts in the Southwest going back a thousand years.  Modern droughts are remembered in the 1900 teens, the dustbowl years of the thirties and brief, but intense  droughts in the 1970’s, the early 1980’s and even in the ‘90’s.  

            Drought is considered to happen when an area receives less than 75% of its “normal” rainfall.  Seems there are few normal rainfall years it seems out in the country, especially when dry land farming or ranching!  The Texas State Handbook states that in each of the ten geographic or ecological regions from 1892 to 1992 had from ten to seventeen drought years in that period.  During the 1900’s each region had at least one serious drought each decade!  Of course drought history is important to be aware of and to educate ourselves.  But, no drought is as important to our rural communities as is the present one!  It is hitting producers, towns and the state in the pocketbook during this already tough recession period.  This drought has been greatly aggravated this summer by record heat across Central and South Texas.  Record drought combined with record heat is a devastating combination!  Many towns in those regions have had many more 100+ degree days this summer than ever before recorded.  Ag Extension states that agriculture has already lost over $4 billion dollars this year alone.  Not only beef producers, but dairies have also been hit hard.  As native trees are dying in some areas, also are rancher’s cattle.  Crops in many areas have been devastated with losses from significant clear to100%.  Normally high producing dry land crops in South Texas were virtually wiped out this year.   When you throw in the rapid population growth of our state, which rose from 7.7 million in 1950 to 20.8 million in 2000, you can see the effect that widespread groundwater and surface water pumping has on our state’s limited water resources.  By 2050 Texas is projected to have 46 million residents, with about 70% living in the Houston-San Antonio to Dallas-Ft. Worth triangle!  What does that do to water demands and future drought effects?  Nothing good, I assure you.  Many other regions and cities in Texas are also experiencing rapid growth such as: El Paso, Lubbock, the Hill Country, Odessa/Midland/San Angelo and the Rio Grande Valley.  Where will this water come from – especially in drought years which we now know are expected to occur regularly? 

 That issue is a hotly debated topic in Texas and one we will talk about more right here (Ranch & Rural Living Magazine) in the future.  Yep, the old Spanish saying that “those who cannot remember the past are  condemned to repeat it!” is just as valid today as centuries ago.

More information on drought in Texas can be found at the Web site of the Drought Joint Information Center at http://agrilife.tamu.edu/drought/   I wish to credit some information from an excellent article in the Blanco County News by Milan J.Michalec, Director on the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District in Kendall County.

  Map of Drought – Sept. 2009









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