Texas: Consequences of Drought Continue to Linger

    Texas agriculture industry experts discussed the future of water and its impact on crop production before 287 attendees at the 26th Texas Plant Protection Association Conference held recently at the Brazos Center in Bryan.

    Dr. Bill Dugas, acting vice chancellor for agriculture and life sciences and acting dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for The Texas A&M University System, opened the conference with welcoming remarks.

    “Your efforts are to be commended in bringing together everyone in this setting to discuss these important issues,” Dugas said. “Though we’ve received rain, drought is still an issue in Texas and will continue to be an issue in Texas as 35 percent of the state is still in extreme or exceptional drought status.”

    “Looking at a 50-year horizon, by 2060 there will be 80 percent more Texans living here in the state,” said Carlos Rubinstein, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board and one of the general session speakers. “That’s more than 57 million people needing water here in Texas.”

    Rubinstein said by 2060, Texas will be short 8.3 million acre feet of water if current water plan goals are not met.

    “We all remember 2009 and how dry it was,” he said. “In 2011, Texas used 18 million acre feet of water. So, where is the water going to come from?”

    Rubinstein said a state water plan, which serves as a model to others, aims to solve the challenges. He said about one-third of the water needed will be met by conservation and reuse.

    “To me, that’s the cheapest water we can have because it’s water we already have,” he said.

    Another third will come from proposed new water sources and infrastructure, such as incentivizing seawater and desalination.

    Rubinstein said “there’s no magic bullet” to solving Texas’ future water needs, but the agency does have dedicated financing to fund local water projects, something that wasn’t available in the past. The funding is a result of Texas voters passing an amendment last year authorizing $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to create the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas or SWIFT.

    SWIFT funds will be used to leverage loans to develop approved water projects. The water development board is currently accepting applications until Feb. 3. Loans are not made to for-profit entities. Water districts will also play an important role, Rubinstein said.

    Not less than 20 percent of the funds will be used for conservation and not less than 10 percent will be used for agriculture and rural water, he noted.

    “That’s a floor, not a ceiling, and I hope we can go above that.”

    Dr. Travis Miller, interim director for state operations for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, College Station, discussed the historical and economic implications of drought to Texas.

    “It’s very important that you are here and part of this dialogue, as this is a very important issue,” Miller said. “We’re not talking about water, but the lack of water.”

    Miller said during the Dustbowl of the 1930s, Texas and Oklahoma were hardest hit. More than 3.5 million people were displaced as result of the drought, relocating to California and other states, Miller said.

    “The whole population was affected, not just agriculture,” he said.

    During the 1950s drought, 25 percent of Texas’ rural population moved to urban areas.

    Economic losses have been staggering to Texas agriculture, Miller said. The 2011 drought led to $7.6 billion in agricultural losses, which were on top of $3.6 billion in losses in 2009 and  $4.1 billion in 2006. In 1998, drought losses were estimated at $2.4 billion.

    Hardest hit has been Texas’ beef cattle industry, Miller said. Texas beef cow numbers were 5.35 million head in 2005. In 2014, that number was cut to 3.91 million head.

    “Beef cattle are our most valuable, marketable commodity in Texas,” Miller said. “That decline was due to loss of forage base, the resources to stock and restock cattle, and prices became too high to restock. We’ve seen a 27 percent decrease in the number of mother cows and statewide. That’s been a huge loss of resource as far as cattle are concerned.”

    As a result of fewer mother cows and calves to market,  it’s also led to closures of packing plants. Miller noted the closure of San Angelo Packing Inc. in April 2013 and the Plainview Excel plant in February 2013, eliminating 2,000 jobs.

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