Drying out: Drought conditions in region worsen to severe, extreme

HARLINGEN — Temperatures have been above average in late winter, but rainfall in the Rio Grande Valley has been practically non-existent.

A stretch of exceedingly dry months has plunged Cameron, Willacy and Hidalgo counties into severe drought conditions, bringing concerns about water supplies, spring planting and cattle and raising the risk of wildfires across the region.

To the west, conditions are even worse, with Starr, Jim Hogg, Zapata, Webb and Dimmit counties in extreme drought conditions, just one level short of the maximum condition of exceptional drought.

Rainfall in February in the Rio Grande Valley was practically nil, with Brownsville receiving .10 inches, or 0.98 inches less than normal, Harlingen at 0.08 percent, down 1.33 inches from normal, and McAllen at 0.19 inches, or 0.92 inches under normal.

If anything, March has been even worse. Both Brownsville and Harlingen have had two or three days with a trace of precipitation, while McAllen hasn’t even recorded that much.

Outside of portions of Brook and Kenedy counties to the north, where a half-inch to 1.5 inches of rain fell in February, the rest of Deep South Texas has been bone-dry. What rain there has been in the past three months has fallen in the northeastern and coastal portions of the region in the vicinity of Corpus Christi.

“It’s definitely worsening,” Chris Birchfield, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said Monday. “The pattern isn’t looking very favorable for rainfall going into the long-term. We do have a very small chance of rain here in the next day or so but the way the pattern is, most of these storm systems have been tracking well to our north.

“North Texas, if you look at the drought monitor, it has pretty good rainfall and normal moisture right now but South Texas is a completely different story with worsening drought,” he added. “So the outlook is not very good.”

Fire danger

The latest fire danger map from the Texas Inter-Agency Coordination Center released Sunday indicates moderate to high fire danger across Deep South Texas.

Landowners in the region, especially in Zapata, Jim Hogg, Starr, Brooks and Willacy counties, are urged to take special precautions when conducting any outside burning and they should notify county officials before a fire is lit.

Agricultural impacts

Soil moisture is listed as short to very short by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

Pastures and rangelands are in poor condition and ranchers have resorted to supplemental feeding in many areas. Some producers have been hauling water and reducing cattle herds by selling off cows around the Three Rivers area, halfway between Corpus Christi and San Antonio.

“The livestock producers are having to feed hay, which by now, usually at this time, it starts greening up but it’s just not happening because there’s no moisture, so they’re having to spend more money on feed and hay just to keep the animals going,” said Vidal Saenz, Hidalgo County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources.

Dryland farmers without irrigation options have already planted for the spring but are at a standstill until their land gets some rain, Saenz said.

“They’ve already planted with moisture, and summer crops have emerged, but it’s not going to go anywhere if it doesn’t get some moisture pretty quick,” Saenz said.

“For the irrigated farmers, and I’m talking about row corps, a lot of them what they did was pre-water,” he added. “So they pre-irrigate weeks before they plant so once it dries out enough to where they can get in with a tractor, they plant into moisture. Those are doing all right, but it costs them money to water and with labor and all that.”

Saenz said it will take significant rainfall in the next few weeks to correct the situation and get growers and ranchers back on track for the year.

“An inch-and-half or two inches would start getting things better, and if it keeps raining, we’ll take as much as we can,” Saenz said. “An inch-and-a-half to two or three inches, that would be perfect.”

Water watch

Across the region, nearly three dozen community water systems are listed as “watch,” which means they have more than a 180-day supply but should be monitored, according to the Texas Department on Environmental Quality.

In Cameron County, eight water supply entities are listed under watch, including the cities of Los Fresnos, Rio Hondo, Olmito, Rancho Viejo and Primera.

In Willacy County, both Raymondville and Lyford are in the watch category.

In Hidalgo County, 13 water suppliers are in the watch category, including the cities of Alamo, Donna, Edcouch, Edinburg, Elsa, the McAllen Public Utility, Mission and Pharr.

The current Texas water share at Falcon Reservoir has edged up slightly over the past month to 32.0 percent, or about the same level of 31.8 percent recorded three months ago. But last year at this time the water share at Falcon was 50.6 percent.

At Amistad Reservoir, the water share level has dropped in the past month to 67.3 percent, down from 74.9 percent three months ago. Last year at this time the water share level at Amistad was at 76.0 percent.

So what’s next?

While there is a chance of rainfall later this week, the consensus of the U.S. Climate Prediction Center is not a robust endorsement for rainfall breaking the region out of its drought doldrums any time soon.

“The latest three-month outlook for April, May and June, has us leaning toward warmer than normal and about equal chances of rainfall,” Birchfield said. “That means equal chances of above or below normal rainfall, but with warmer than normal, and even if we see normal rainfall, that could still lead to worsening drought conditions with the heat.

“And the wind in the spring worsens the drought conditions with the evaporation from the soil,” he added. “Unfortunately, that’s bad for wildfires as well.”