August 2, 2011
Electronic signs flash warnings to drivers heading to downtown Dallas, cautioning them about the extreme drought conditions and urging water conservation. In big metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth, conserving water is the most important thing residents can do to combat dry conditions.
But the drought raging across Texas raises more far-reaching questions for farmers and ranchers. How can producers raise livestock or grow crops amid these conditions? Their livelihoods greatly depend on the answers.
And those answers will affect what those of us living in cities and suburbs eat and how much we pay for our food and clothes.
Nothing much can be done now to get farmers and ranchers out of the current dry spell. With few options, many already have sold their herds or cashed in their crops.
For instance, about half of this year’s cotton acreage in Texas has been abandoned. The remaining crop has been limited by drought. That’s significant since Texas is the the nation’s leading cotton producer.
Some analysts project this year’s overall crop and livestock losses could be the worst Texas ranchers and farmers have experienced.
Today’s harsh conditions should remind and inspire us to prepare for the next drought. We don’t know if this climate pattern is the new normal, but Texas had serious droughts in 1996, 1998, 2006 and 2009. And the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the gold standard for measuring such periods, shows that all parts of Texas, except the Lower Rio Grande Valley, face extreme drought conditions.
Fortunately, some are looking ahead at how to survive such conditions. Monsanto Co. is working on introducing genetically modified corn that can tolerate droughts. Texas A&M University is developing drought-resistant cotton. And others are looking at the same for wheat. Travis Miller of Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service says the research is most advanced with those three crops.
Here’s another important reform underway: Texas Tech University and A&M are leading a project in the Panhandle to explore how agricultural producers can sustain their economy and use less water. Irrigation practices have improved immensely in that part of the state; producers still use about the same amount of water, but they use it to grow more crops.
On the biggest issue of all, legislators missed another chance this year to create a way to fund Texas’ long-range water plan. The longer the state avoids that responsibility, the harder it will be to cope with drought conditions.
And we can be assured of this: The harder that becomes, the more all parts of Texas — city and country — will feel the effects. What happens in rural Texas doesn’t stay in rural Texas.