While most of Texas has received rain over the last two weeks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reports it has not been enough to put much of a dent in the long-lasting impact of ongoing drought trends across the region.
As sorghum harvest spreads from Deep South Texas and the Coastal Plains into northeast regions of Texas, and eastern New Mexico's alfalfa producers wrap up another fresh cutting, dryland cotton continues to struggle in many fields, healthy for the most part but beginning to feel the effects of higher temperatures and depleted soil moisture.
Coastal Bend farmer Charles Ring lamented about another year of dry conditions, expressing concern over the impact of dry weather for the fourth consecutive year in a row across South Texas and the negative impact it has had on croplands across the region.
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“We are praying for fall rains to come in a timely manner to replenish our soil, something we have not had enough of in about three years running,” he said.
Ring grows grain sorghum, cotton, corn and sesame on his farm near Corpus Christi.
As combines continued to roll across sorghum fields in Nueces and surrounding counties in the Coastal Bend, storm clouds formed late last week dropping light to heavy rains across parts of the region providing water that is desperately needed as soil moisture remains low in vast areas of South Texas and extending across much of the state. Ring and crop experts say steady rains in South Texas are desperately needed to increase the depleted soil moisture profile.
According to Bobby McCool, Agriculture and Natural Resource specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Sinton, the region's soil moisture level reaches about 4 feet under the surface currently, but the desired soil moisture level would be between 5and 10 feet deep.
Need more rain
Good rains at the end of last summer that stretched into fall and rains this summer have helped improve soil moisture conditions compared to the 2011 drought year, but McCool says more drenching rains are needed.
“We just need a steady rain pattern to develop. What we have now is dry dirt. With recent rains we have some topsoil moisture but not much beyond the 4-foot level.”
Timely rains have helped dryland crops survive the summer in most areas across the Coastal Bend as well in other parts of the state, but forecasters see few promising signs that trend will continue now that the peak of summer has arrived. Localized showers have done little to affect reservoir levels at both Choke Canyon Reservoir, which is 25 feet below normal levels, and Lake Corpus Christi, which is at 63 percent capacity as of last week.
South Texas farmers and ranchers are not alone in their need for more soil moisture. All across the Southwest and especially in the Far West soil moisture is fading. According to a June 30 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, more than 60 percent of topsoil from Texas to California is either short or very short of moisture.
More alarming are the statistics for subsoil moisture with Texas at 52 percent short according to the latest reports, New Mexico at 67 percent, Oklahoma at 64 percent and California at 90 percent short. NOAA says these statistics bear out the impact of the multi-year drought and no immediate change is expected in the months ahead, intensifying an already dire outlook.
Also noted in the NCDC report, the modeled soil water index indicated unsatisfactory soil moisture conditions across the southwestern third of the country. The water requirement satisfaction index indicated potential crop failure across much of the Southwest and Southern Plains if beneficial rains do not develop soon.
Also affecting subsoil moisture conditions are the watersheds, lakes and reservoirs throughout the West and Southwest. The NCDC report noted that persistent dryness was reflected in below-normal groundwater and spring water levels in Texas, California and most of the western states. Some wells in western states have record low levels, with many wells having the lowest groundwater levels in the last 20 years and some the lowest in at least 50 years. In Texas, many reservoirs were at record low levels earlier this year but began to improve in June.
Despite the continuing drought and poor soil conditions, rainfall Texas has received so far this year have proved beneficial. The USDA reports upland cotton acreage is up 11 percent from last year, and Pima cotton is up 44 percent across the West, though no estimates on harvest have been made.
In Texas, planted sorghum acreage was about the same as last year but has seen a 9 percent increase in harvested acres early in the year. Smaller crops are all doing better in 2014 than 2013, with the exception of rice, which is still struggling with little or no irrigation discharge out of the Colorado River. Rice is down about 3 percent over last year's greatly reduced crop.