Dealing With Drought: A Tale of Two States

Dealing With Drought: A Tale of Two States

From Cotton Grower Magazine – June 2015



When Mother Nature turns on the heat and shuts off the water, things can get mighty tough, mighty fast.

As the Cotton Grower editors finalized our June issue, California is still reeling from full blown drought conditions, while Texas (and other parts of the Southwest) was beginning a gradual recovery following much needed winter and spring rainfall.

John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, says there are similarities between conditions in those two states.

(Editor’s note: Of course, since the June issue went to press, most of Texas has been deluged by heavy rains, causing tragic flooding in some areas and holding up planting in most cotton-growing regions of the state. As we’ve seen, when Mother Nature wants to turn the water on, things can also get mighty tough, mighty fast.)

“For most of Texas, the five-year-long drought has eased considerably,” said Nielsen-Gammon, who also serves as state climatologist. “But that’s not so for California, where conditions are the driest in the past 1,200 years.

“California is going through what Texas did in 2011-2012, when conditions were worse than what the Golden State is experiencing now,” he pointed out. “That was probably the worst year for Texas agriculture overall, because every corner of the state was impacted. In October 2011, about 88 percent of the state was in exceptional drought. Since then, statewide rainfall has actually been close to average, but individual locations throughout the state remain drier than others.”

The period from 2010 through 2015 marked the second-longest statewide drought in Texas history (the period from 1950-1957 is still considered the drought of record for the state). At its peak, the driest areas extended from the Panhandle across north central Texas into the Hill Country, then into central Texas to the coastal areas from Corpus Christi to Brownsville.

“Right now, a little more than 20 percent of the state is rated in severe drought or worse, based on the U.S. Drought Monitor,” stated Nielsen-Gammon. “It’s great to get the topsoil moist again. For cotton purposes, growers want deep soil moisture, so if things dry out during the summer, there’s still something for the plants to go on.

“We’ve gone far enough with our rainfall now that we don’t have to worry about bad conditions happening quickly,” he added. “Anytime you go more than a month in the summer without rain, you can have problems. At this point, as long as the crops are in the ground, they should be mature enough to access moisture that’s six to 12 inches deep.

“The rain we’ve had will also tend to keep temperatures lower. This could be the least hot summer Texas has had in a while.”

Nielsen-Gammon attributes part of the situation to an active El Niño pattern that gives the state an opportunity for above normal rainfall again next winter.

Unfortunately, California probably won’t see much, if any, rainfall from El Niño over the next year. The U.S. Drought Monitor currently shows that 46 percent of California is struggling with exceptional drought. A combination of long-standing water management regulations, environmental laws and legislative actions to reduce water use is taking its toll on the nation’s top agriculture state.

The impact on California’s cotton heritage is striking.

“We have estimated plantings of 110,000 acres of Pima and 45,000 acres of Upland,” said Jarral Neeper, president of Calcot, headquartered in Bakersfield, CA. “That’s compared to a little more than 200,000 acres of cotton last year.

“It’s not what water is doing to cotton acres today,” he continued. “Growers are going to put expensive water on their highest value crop. The question we face is how long can we withstand lower plantings and not destroy the infrastructure, particularly in the ginning industry?”

It’s true that the rainfall and snowpack that provide most of California’s water supply are down. But the state also tends to lose existing water in other ways. According to a recent Water Supply Update report, California has had total inflows of 75.8 million acre feet of water into the Delta region west of Sacramento since October 2010. Of that total, 52.3 million acre feet – or roughly 69 percent of the inflow – went to the Pacific.

“It’s very discouraging when you realize that we’ve had plenty of water running through the system that we could have put into reservoirs,” said Neeper.  “We had water allotments in years when we had less snow available. Without the stringent Endangered Species Act we have in place now, the state was able to save some water.”

Neeper noted that people can still make a living growing cotton, and it’s a good rotation crop with alfalfa. But he admits that people are searching for answers regarding what to do long term.

“One grower said he was going to pull out of cotton to irrigate his tomatoes,” he recalled. “Another said he was pulling out his alfalfa in order to irrigate his cotton.”