After a year-and-a-half without significant rainfall, most of the state of Texas received salvation via a series of showers that fell throughout February, providing some areas with as much as five inches of rain and giving hope for spring crops.
“The big red spot on the map in south Texas might go down to brown,” joked Travis Miller, associate department head of Texas A&M University’s Department of Crop Soil and Crop Sciences and program leader of the Agrilife Extension Service.
“We got nice rains in the Rio Grande Valley, about four to five inches, which were sorely, sorely needed, ” he said. “One of our agronomists here was just doing some soil profile work, and there is as much as five inches of plant-available water in the top four feet of the soil, so that’s good news. We’re very much encouraged there’s going to be moisture to plant. Everybody was real bleak about getting the crop in, but I think there’s going to be some crops made on this moisture.”
The rains were perfectly timed for the Texas sweet onion crop which, like all granex varieties, gets most of its growth during its final month in the ground.
“It was just like you’d order it for onions,” Dr. Miller said. “They’re going to respond pretty well to that rain and you couldn’t have ordered it better unless you’d ordered another one earlier. This will mean a great deal to the Rio Grande Valley, and northeast and central Texas. The upper and lower Gulf Coasts have all had a pretty good drink of water. We’re not in nearly as bad a shape as we were. Does this solve the problem? No, but it puts a good-sized Band-Aid on it.”
By the end of February, about 14 percent of the state was listed as being under exceptional drought conditions, while 70 percent of the state is still dealing with severe drought and the northwest region is “pretty grim,” Dr. Miller said.
“After about 16 to 18 months without significant rain, you begin to say ‘uncle.’ They won’t have enough moisture to plant if they don’t get some rain,” he added.
At the end of December, 90 percent of the state suffered from exceptional drought conditions. Exceptional drought is defined by widespread crop and pasture losses, with reservoirs and streams low enough to create water emergencies. Severe drought conditions mean crop or pasture losses are likely, water shortages are common and some water-use restrictions are imposed.
The drought began in late 2010 and has so far cost the state a record $5.2 billion in agricultural losses. Through most of 2011, thousands of wildfires roared across the state, scorching nearly 4 million acres — roughly equivalent to the states of Delaware, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C. and Connecticut combined, according to Todd Staples, commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture.
“We’ve still got significant drought in areas of the state,” Dr. Miller said. “It’s historic, nobody alive has seen it because it’s the worse it’s been since we started measuring weather records in 1885 in terms of temperature extremes and lack of precipitation. The third variable we don’t have good records for is winds. I’ve never seen anything quite like the winds we had last year, we had weeks at a time when we had winds days and nights. That really saps the moisture out of crops and weakens them.”
The drought is the result of a La Niña weather pattern that settled over Texas in 2010 and is finally “weakening and may be gone by May,” Dr. Miller said. “If this is the last rain of the season, we’re still in trouble. La Niña causes the jet stream to move up to the northern United States and southern Canada, and when we have La Niña, the north has cooler, wetter weather than normal, and the south has warmer weather and much below normal precipitation. El Niño is just the opposite. It’s not good for agriculture production on either end of the scale.”