For 13 years, drought has been on my mind

As of Aug. 1, I have been a resident of the Southwest for 13 years. The year we moved to Texas, 1999, we arrived in the middle of a prolonged dry, hot, dusty spell. It had not rained over much of the region for several months, at least not substantial rain. And temperatures pushed above 100 daily. We figured it was an aberration.

We learned different.

I don’t know how many of the last 13 years have been unusually dry—I’m not even certain what the term unusually dry would mean in a region that seems to be “usually dry.” But I don’t recall a summer since 1999 that didn’t feature at least a month or so of dry weather—at least in part of the region.

Farmers and ranchers, I’ve discovered, expect occasional drought. They’ve learned to live with it. They endure, somehow. Last year, however, truly was an aberration—drier, hotter and windier than most had ever encountered. This year’s dry stretch, in comparison, may be just a common, run of the mill, average drought. Rainfall has been scarce but not totally absent.

Coming so soon after last summer’s record heat and drought, however, makes this one adequate to create problems. Add in decreasing water supplies, water use restrictions and more hot weather, and the drought of 2012 may not reach the superlative descriptions (some unprintable ones) of the 2011 dry spell, but it’ll do.

Since the first year I was a Texas resident, I’ve heard about the State Water Plan, the formula that legislators and planners hope will guide water use for the next 50 years so the state doesn’t run out. It’s a big job. As far back as 10 years ago, state agencies were facing the daunting task of assuring that Texas would have enough water to satisfy the needs of a rapidly growing population. That scenario now looks out 40 years and the chore is no less daunting, likely more so, that it was in 2000. The population is growing; water resources are diminishing.

A recent water management conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, addressed the problem, one that faces most of the Western states. The overriding conviction of conference participants was that the problem will only increase in importance and that water consumers—agriculture, industry, municipalities and private citizens—must develop plans that include conservation, more efficient irrigation for crops and a better understanding of the need to balance needs of various segments of society.

One speaker, Billy Kiffen, Texas AgriLife Extension, explained how he provides all his water needs with rainfall in a remote part of Texas where municipal water is not available and wells are not possible.

“We did it last year on less than 5 inches of rainfall,” he said. He admitted that it was not easy and that a few times he was a bit concerned, but 5 inches proved to be enough. That may seem an extreme measure, but as populations grow and demand increases, rainfall harvest may become a critical means of capturing and utilizing rainwater that otherwise runs off into streets and sewers.

Other speakers also discussed methods to improve agricultural water use—better, more efficient irrigation systems, better pumping facilities and other techniques. The solution to a looming water problem likely will not be one silver bullet.

Water, one speaker said, may be a limited resource but is also a renewable one. The limitations of that resource, however, have been apparent this year as more than 50 percent of the United States has been subject to significant drought. Balance and cooperation, Brian Hurd, New Mexico State University economist, said, will be crucial in addressing an issue that will only become more acute as populations and water demand increase.

“Water,” the conference theme reminded, is “The foundation of agricultural sustainability.”