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Texas: Drought, Fires and Soil and Water Conservation

By: Dr. Clay Robinson SWCC Alumnus

  Getting Into Soil & Water 2012  

I was glad for the opportunity the Soil and Water Conservation Club offered me to write about the conditions in Texas this year, and their connection to soil and water conservation. I will provide some background information first, then I will share some current statistics, followed by implications on regional soil and water conservation issues.  

I am a fourth-generation Panhandle native, with a longer heritage in Texas (one great-grand uncle died in the Battle of the Alamo). My wife describes me as a “rabid” Texan. My father’s parents and grandparents farmed and ran cattle. I am the first from the Robinson clan to obtain a college degree. They did not understand my pursuit of education; my grandmother once asked, “Why don’t you just get a job?” After changing majors five times, I completed a BS in General Agriculture at West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M) in 1984. I worked for a year in triticale research before falling victim to layoffs in the last recession. I went back to school and completed an MS in Plant Science in 1988. As there were still no jobs (20+ flush letters), I took a teaching assistant position in the soils teaching lab at Iowa State University, and became a member of Dr. Richard Cruse’s research group. I completed my PhD in 1993, looking at long-term, cropping system effects on soil properties. After two years at Eastern New Mexico University, I returned to West Texas A&M to teach courses in soils and agronomy. I modeled my alter-ego, “Dr. Dirt,” after Bill Nye – The Science Guy, in outreach activities to the K-12 audience (DoctorDirt.org). I left as a full professor in May 2011 after 17 years, for a consulting position in the private sector. 

A Brief Panhandle History 

The High Plains includes the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, and parts of New Mexico, southeast Colorado, and southwest Kansas, some of the last areas settled in the United States. Only three rivers crossed the High Plains, and there were only a few springs. Playas provided water for a few months, in some years. With little permanent water, no trees native to the High Plains uplands, and grass as far as the eye could see, there was little incentive for people to settle the region. The Native Americans were nomadic, as were the primary grazers, e.g, bison and antelope.  

In the 1870s the bison were killed, almost to extinction, and the Comanches were driven out.. Ranchers brought cattle to the High Plains in the 1880s, forming huge ranches. The ranches were established in a decade or so of above normal rainfall (about 150%). Windmills allowed people to tap the aquifer and Anglo-Europeans were the first to establish permanent homes on the uplands. Later, with favorable, if ill-conceived, government homesteading policies, my great grandparents joined other farmers, plowing the sod in the early 1900s in another period of favorable rainfall. Political policies during World War I further encouraged plowing the prairie, supported by Powell’s (1879) perspective, “The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up” (Powell, 1879).  

Time proved Powell incorrect. A decade-long drought combined with more than 100 million acres of dryland wheat; fallow cropping systems, lots of tillage, overgrazing, and winds resulted in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Irrigation developed concurrently with the development of the natural gas industry following World War II. A more severe, but shorter, drought resulted in the “Filthy Fifties.” Soon after the Dust bowl irrigation increased and soil conservation districts were established, enrolling 20 million acres by 1939. One of the Great Plains precipitation rules of thumb originated then, the minimum annual precipitation is approximately half the long-term mean. Some of the land that blew in the 30s had been abandoned and allowed to go back to grass. Irrigated acreage was increasing. Hugh Hammond Bennett was successful in establishing soil conservation districts, enrolling 20 million acres by 1939. All of these factors lessened the environmental and economic impact of the 50s drought. 

2011 

Good news or bad news? The worst news for farmers, ranchers, and natural resources managers in Texas and some other parts of the South and Southwest, was that there was no good news. Though 2010 was a wet year that produced abundant grass and understory vegetation, the drought began in late September, 2010. 

Temperature 

  • Record heat wave: Texas mean summer temperature beat the previous record by 2.5° F 
  • Wichita Falls and San Angelo recorded 100 days when the temperature was 100°F or more 
  • Most cities recorded 20 to 40 more 100+ °F days than the previous record. 

Precipitation 

  • Driest fourteen months (October 2010 – November 2011) in Texas history 
  • Two recording stations near Midland have received < 1.0” for the year 
  • West Texas is as dry as the Mojave Desert, receiving less than 25% of normal precipitation 
  • The Panhandle has received 3” to 5”, about 25% to 33% of normal (16 to 22”) precipitation, about half that of the previous driest year records 
  • East Texas received about half their normal precipitation, getting the Panhandle norm 
  • The Drought Monitor (drought monitor.unl.edu, 11-22-2011) shows more than 97% of Texas experiencing severe to exceptional drought. 
  • Given the strength of the La Nina forming again this year, the Texas State Climatologist expects the drought will extend through summer 2012, maybe longer. 

Agricultural Impacts 

  • The heat and lack of rain dried the grass and understory vegetation into a formidable fuel source. The winds set no records, but were persistent. 
  • In 2006, about 1.67 million acres burned in Texas wildfires, setting a record. 
  • In 2011 almost 4 million acres were burned in wildfires, along with thousands of miles of fences and hundreds of homes. 
  • More than half the planted cotton was abandoned before harvest 
  • Most dryland crops were not planted due to lack of soil, moisture or precipitation 
  • Acreage of corn, wheat, sorghum and other crops were down, as was per acre yield. 
  • Ranchers bought feed and/or substantially culled herds due to lack of grass for grazing. 
  • Farm losses in Texas will exceed $5 billion in 2011. 

Water Impacts 

  • Texas water rights laws are based on the rule of capture, and managed through local water districts. The State does not own the water, individuals do. Though the legislature passed a landmark comprehensive water legislation act in 1997, aquifer withdrawals are subject only to local control through groundwater districts. 
  • There is only one natural lake in Texas. All others are reservoirs constructed to supply water to agriculture, industry, and a thirsty populace. No rain means no runoff. Stream flow and river levels are low. Statewide reservoir storage is at an all time low, less than 60%. Curtails for agricultural water use from reservoirs in 2012 are likely, even in the rice production area along the humid Gulf Coast. Texas aquifers are being depleted, as well, and it will take months to years of above-normal precipitation to recharge the aquifers (Fuchs, 2011). 
  • Lake Meredith in the Texas Panhandle was built in the 1960s and began delivering water to the 11 member cities (no agriculture use) through 358 miles of aqueduct in 1968. Operated by the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority (CRMWA, 2011), the lake was at 101.9 ft and held 540,000 ac-fet in 1973. Currently, it is at 23.6 ft and holds 22,000 ac-ft, 4% of capacity. Now Ogallala Aquifer well fields are providing water to the half million people once supplied by the reservoir.  
  • For the first time in the history of the lake, some member cities instituted voluntary water conservation targets. 

Wasteful Attitudes Towards Water 

Businesses, schools, homeowners, and universities feel compelled to have trees and green grass all around, planting fescue and bluegrass, cool-season grasses that use two to three times as much water each year as the native, warm-season buffalograss. For 17 years I told university administrators, including the director of grounds, that West Texas A&M University should be a regional water conservation leader. What they heard was, “You don’t want our campus to be pretty.” They ignored the beauty of the native plant landscape outside the library, designed by students in one of my classes. The grounds director has improved irrigation application efficiency and reduced water use by half. Now less water runs down the street and ponds in low spots on the lawns and sidewalks, but soils are often still saturated. 

Lubbock and Amarillo have shallow, perched groundwater tables due to constant over-watering by homeowners. I have pictures of ice sculptures in lawns watered in February because the homeowner or business did not change the settings on their automated irrigation system. 

Attitudes Toward Tillage 

This semiarid region must store soil water in a fallow period because growing season precipitation alone is insufficient to produce a dryland crop. Minimizing tillage to keep residues on the soil surface increases infiltration and soil water storage, and decreases evaporation during the fallow period. 

 However, “The Plow that Broke the Plains” (Pare Lorentz, 1936, US Government Short Film) is still in vogue. Many farmers in the region continue to practice clean tillage with disk plows, thinking they are increasing organic matter and creating good mulch. Their goal is to get rid of the “trash.” They do not understand they are drying the soil to the depth of tillage and decreasing available water holding capacity as they decrease soil organic matter. Irrigated farmers often burn corn and wheat residue to make plowing easier. 

 I have been unable to find reliable statistics on residue management practices in the Southern High Plains, but will share some observations. “Trash farmers” are not respected in the small agricultural communities in the region. To be sure, there are some excellent dryland, no-till farmers who “get it.” There are some irrigated farmers adopting strip tillage. But the generally accepted notion of limited tillage in the region is tilling in fewer trips, not less-intensive soil disturbance. Even well-meaning farmers who want to practice “minimum tillage” proudly have shown me their new plow that turns a residue-covered surface into dry, bare, brown, powdery, erosion-susceptible topsoil. The prevalence of clean-tillage methods, low-residue crops like cotton, massive crop failures due to the drought, and lands scorched by fire, with 60-mph winds, led to the haboob in Lubbock, October 17, 2011. 

 From my windshield surveys and conversations with former students, I think the number of producers practicing tillage methods that consistently leave residues on the soil surface is less than half. So, is sustainable crop production on the High Plains possible? Sustainable, integrated, dryland crop-livestock systems are possible. Research on dryland, no-till wheat-sorghum-fallow rotations (2 crops in 3 years) at the USDA-ARS-CPRL at Bushland, TX (about 18” annual precipitation) has averaged 40 bu/ac wheat yields with only two crop failures in 30 years of production. The average dryland wheat yield with conventional tillage in that area is less than 20 bu/ac. Long-term, sustainable, dryland crop production becomes more difficult south of Lubbock. The rainfall pattern does not support winter crops in the rotation. The dominant crop, by far, is cotton. The soils are sandier and hold less available water in the root zone. These soils are also more susceptible to wind erosion. Cotton is a low-residue crop that does little to protect the soil from wind erosion. 

 Irrigated agriculture accounts for 95% of the Ogallala Aquifer water use in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains. The aquifer contains fossil water, with limited, if any, recharge, especially in the north. The current management goal for 2060 is to have 50% of the 2010 aquifer level. That does not account for the large water withdrawals in the first 60 years of irrigation. Many wells that once pumped more than 1000 gpm now pump less than 250 gpm, so a producer needs four to six wells to do what one well once did. Irrigation efficiency improved from about 40% in the early days of flood irrigation to 85% or better with a well-designed pivot. Some are now installing drip systems that have 95% efficiency. But, efficiency is not conservation. Once about half the 10 million acres of Panhandle and South Plains cropland was irrigated. Cropland acres decreased with the Conservation Reserve Program to about 8 million acres in 2010. Due to decreasing water levels and rising energy costs, irrigated acreage is now less than half, and will continue to decline. In some areas, irrigated agriculture lasted only a generation. Though the aquifer water quality has been good, salinity is increasing in many areas as the water table drops, creating more challenges. In some places, there are other fossil water aquifers below the Ogallala, with greater energy costs, and often with poorer water quality. Some producers already are using water from these aquifers. The water management plans call for reducing the rate of withdrawal from the aquifer, not seeking a sustainable use rate. For all these reasons, large-scale, irrigated agriculture in the Texas High Plains and South Plains is not sustainable. 

Is Another Dust Bowl On The Horizon? 

The Dust Bowl originally referred to the region affected by the worst of the drought and dust events. Now it refers to the worst environmental disaster in United States history. Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, made history as the worst of the worst. But during the height of the Dust Bowl, dusters came 3 to 4 times a week in the peak months, November through March. 

In a report to President Roosevelt on the Dust Bowl, Hugh Hammond Bennett et al. (1936) stated, that the basic cause of the present Great Plains situation is an attempt to impose upon the region a system of agriculture to which the Plains are not adapted. 

Factors Limiting the Likelihood of Another Dust Bowl 

  • There are 9 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, concentrated in the areas that were affected most by the Dust Bowl. 
  • About 1.1 million acres of National Grasslands exist on abandoned homesteads in those same five states. 
  • Many producers have adopted less intensive tillage practices, from using chisels, large sweep or blade plows, to complete no-till systems, though Colorado extension research showed adoption of better residue management methods decreased with distance from agricultural research stations. 
  • Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and FSA/NRCS programs encourage soil and water conservation methods. 
  • Range management practices have improved so overgrazing is less common. 
  • Irrigated crop production 
  • Knowledge and technology exist at all levels to be better environmental stewards than we were in the first four decades of the 1900s 
  • The combination of these factors decreases the contiguous acreage of degraded soil susceptible to wind erosion. 

Factors Contributing to a Potential Dust Bowl 

  • Policies and commodity prices that encourage large scale conversion of CRP acreage back to cropland. (It 14 happened before: Most of the land planted to permanent grass for the Soil Bank program in the 1950s and 1960s was plowed to produce wheat in the 1970s.) 
  • Large, confined animal feeding operations (about 7 million cattle, 500,000 dairy cows, and 2 million pigs in the Texas Panhandle alone) create a large demand for locally produced forage, encouraging irrigated corn production. 
  • High commodity prices, especially cotton and corn, increase demand for irrigation. 
  • Reaching the useful life of the aquifer for large-scale, irrigated crop production. What will producers do with acreage that was once irrigated? Converting all that acreage to dryland crop production would increase erosion potential. 
  • The South Plains will be more susceptible to major wind erosion events than the Pan handle which has more rangeland and grassland. In general the soils in the South Plains are sandier than those in the north. With more irrigated acreage, the south will be more affected by decreasing aquifer levels. 
  • Long-term drought. Isolated wind erosion events occur every year, but if the drought continues through 2012 and beyond, wind erosion events likely will become more frequent and severe. September-October rains failed this fall, so little dryland wheat was planted. If the May-June rains fail in 2012, a few acres of cotton and sorghum will be planted, leaving a lot of fallow ground. If farmers plow for weed control, wind erosion events will worsen. 

Climate Change? 

If the climate gets hotter and drier, wind erosion will become more severe.For many reasons, 2011 will go into the books as one of the worst on record: drought, heat, wildfires, crop failures and abandons, along with declining aquifer and reservoir levels. The High Plains and Southern Plains of the Texas Pan handle continue fighting against Hugh Hammond Bennett’s initial assessment: A system of agriculture has been imposed to which the Plains are not adapted; such a system cannot be both permanent and prosperous. I believe ecologically sustainable agricultural systems are possible on the Plains. How? Large-scale irrigation will not be an option, so 30% to 50% or more of the current cropland likely will be returned to permanent grassland and livestock will be integrated into most operations. Furthermore, better residue management practices will be adopted on the remaining crop land. But such systems may not be profitable because future political policies may encourage the transition. This will be especially true if Midwest congressmen and senators, after seeing the insurance payments this year, renew their effort to change the crop insurance program structure to discourage dryland crop production in the Great Plains. We have the technology to avert another Dust Bowl. The question remains, “Do we have the resolve?” 

The High Plains and Southern Plains of the Texas Panhandle continue fighting against Hugh Hammond Bennett’s initial assessment: A system of agriculture has been imposed to which the Plains are not adapted; such a system cannot be both permanent and prosperous. 

References 

Bennett, H.H. et al. 1936. Report of the Great Plains Drought Area Committee. www.newdeal.feri.org  

CRMWA. 2011. http://www.crmwa.com/  

Powell,John Wesley, 1879. Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States : with a more detailed account of the lands of Utah. 2nd Ed. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region (U.S.). Gov. Printing Off. Washington, D.C. (http://atmo.tamu.edu/osc/library/osc_pubs/2011_drought.pdf), (http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2011/10/03/03climatewire-some-climatologists-wor-ry-that-texas-mega-dro-4865.html). http://www.twdb.state.tx.us/conservation/agriculture/irrigation/IrrEstResult.asp 

CRP: http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/On-line_Highlights/Ag_Atlas_Maps/Farms/Land_in_Farms_and_Land_Use/07-M094-RGBDot1-largetext.pdf 

Brian Fuchs. 2011. http://www.weather.com/outlook/weath-er-news/news/articles/nasa-texas-drought_2011-12-01 

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