Drought Saps Crops

08:02PM Jul 29, 2008
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As much of the Corn Belt deals with heavy rainfall, a big swath of the rest of the nation struggles with drought. From California through Texas and into the Southeast, farmers are dealing with too little water, rather than too much. Across the South, only the Delta region reports adequate moisture.

In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared an official drought emergency in California, mandating water rationing. It comes after two years of below-average rainfall, very low snow melt runoff and the largest court-ordered water transfer restrictions in state history. The federal judge's ruling that stopped pumping at the south end of California's Delta in order to protect an endangered smelt species turned out to be the tipping point in the state's latest water upheaval.

It cut water supplies in some California districts, forcing farmers to choose between valuable permanent crops, such as almonds and grapes, or annual ones like cotton. In most cases, the trees and vines got the water.

Staggering farm income losses result. In Kern County alone, about 45,000 acres were fallowed and another 100,000 acres underirrigated, with expected losses at $51 million. Fresno County fallowed 41,000 acres and expects $73 million in losses.

"We're affected by two things. A regulatory drought brought on by the Endangered Species Act reduced pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta and took 650,000 acre feet out this year. A climate drought resulted in a lack of snowfall and rainfall this winter and spring,” explains Mike Wade, California Farm Water Coalition executive director.

California farmers buying supplemental water are paying $450 to $900 per acre foot. "It's not economically feasible. They're paying that to try to keep orchards alive until next year,” Wade says.

In Texas, severe drought may result in a million acres of dryland cotton being abandoned, says Shawn Wade, Plains Cotton Growers spokesman.

"A lot of farmers are out of moisture or were blown out by sand. It's difficult, especially on nonirrigated acres. We also had a fairly significant hail event that could have taken out some irrigated cotton,” he says. "This crop just generally had a rough start all across Texas from Corpus Christi to Lubbock. We have the potential to lose 30% of the cotton crop. Nonirrigated cotton bloomed out the top early and that yield could be a bale per acre instead of 2 or 21⁄2 bales.”

In June, weather stations from El Paso to College Station got less than 10% of normal rainfall; San Antonio recorded 0.01" of rain.

"Now we really need moisture from rainfall to limit irrigation expense. When we pump early like this year, wells get drawn down and we have a hard time maintaining water levels,” Wade says.

By early July, most of Georgia, the western Carolinas and eastern Tennessee were abnormally dry.

"Some of the rain we'd normally get got stuck in the Midwest,” says Pam Knox, Georgia assistant state climatologist. "We foresee no short-term relief. We may get some tropical storm systems but those usually don't start until August and that water tends to run off. We have been getting enough small rains to kind of keep things green but not enough to keep things going and growing.”

You can e-mail Charles Johnson at [email protected].