AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – For the first time in more than a year, according to the Texas Water Development Board, less than 50% of Texas is being impacted by drought conditions. However, conditions on the High Plains have remained mostly stagnant, and 2023 may begin with yet another season of continued drought in the region.
According to the TWDB’s “Water Weekly” report for the final week of December, most of the drought condition improvements were localized around Central and East Texas, with drought appearing to worsen notably in South Texas.
While the report noted that rain in late November was able to keep the San Antonio area from breaking its low-precipitation record from 1917, extreme drought conditions are “entrenched” in the area.
As 2022 draws to a close, experts in offices ranging from TWDB staff to the Texas Comptroller’s “Fiscal Notes” economic reports have continued to gauge the impact of the persistent drought conditions across the state, as well as attempt to peer into and prepare for a future full of uncertainties for weather and general water supply.
What the drought ‘dried up’ in 2022
The statewide drought conditions in 2022 actually began in December 2021, according to TWDB records. By April 2022 on the High Plains, Chief Meteorologist John Harris noted that the Amarillo area had been experiencing one of its longest stretches of time without significant rainfall in 30 years, rivaling drought conditions from 2011.
As spring stretched into summer on the High Plains, drought conditions worsened. Wildfires impacted communities and rangeland across the region between unforgiving heatwaves, high winds, and dry conditions. Agricultural producers that had already seen an unsteady start to their planting seasons faced fire-ravaged and parched yields, and cattle ranchers were forced to sell early or cull herds in a bid to cope with high costs and lacking resources.
According to reports from the Texas Comptroller’s office, cotton farmers in particular faced a high cost from the drought, with losses estimated at around $2.1 billion and the elimination of over 17,000 jobs. Those costs were the result of a projected loss of 65% of the dryland cotton in the region when the industry usually contributes over $4 billion per year to its economy.
Other crops, such as pumpkins, also saw difficulties in 2022. Producers with the needed capacity for irrigation fared better than they had in 2021, but some others saw issues with establishing the crop and crop emergence, which at times led to around 40% less yield than in average seasons. Pollination, with hot temperatures broiling the regional bee population, was also an obstacle.
Regarding the livestock and dairy industries in 2022, the Texas Comptroller’s office reported that cattle producers struggled with nearly 40% of the state’s rangeland being in “poor” condition. While there was not a projected estimate for losses from the current drought, the Comptroller’s office and Texas A&M AgriLife reported that the similar drought conditions of 2011 led to an estimated loss of $3.23 billion for Texas livestock producers.
The drought conditions also impacted day-to-day city life in the High Plains, with city officials asking residents to limit outdoor watering in July as per the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. Because irrigation, industry, and municipal water use heavily depends on groundwater in the High Plains, drought conditions draining reservoirs meant anxieties over water supply security in communities from city centers to rural county outskirts.
Looking ahead to 2023: Forecasts, farm bills, and the future of Texas
Water management entities across Texas and other offices, such as that of the Texas Comptroller, have taken the opportunity presented by drought conditions in 2022 to talk about the need for long-term planning and water conservation for the state. The impacts of drought and subsequent water shortages have been, and will continue to be, felt in every area of life for day-to-day Texans, whether or not they actively work in agriculture or water management.
As noted in previous reports on MyHighPlains.com, costs for production and the lack of yields and supplies can impact prices at the grocery store and lead to extra strain on consumers. Further, according to the Comptroller’s office, water shortages caused by drought and other factors can impact business, industry, public safety, and public health, as well as the possible longevity of communities.
“If you don’t have a good water supply able to sustain the effects of drought,” said Robert Puente to the Comptroller’s office, president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System, “industry and businesses will start to notice and be more reluctant to relocate here.”
The effects of drought and the need for sustainable water management strategies were a major focus of the 2022 Texas Groundwater Summit in August. The Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, state legislators, community leaders, industry experts, and others gathered to discuss the status and future of water supply and management in the state.
With the next Texas legislative session set for the end of May 2023, many water management experts and legislators have been drafting bills and other proposals focused on water quality, supply, and infrastructure moving forward in the state. Further, on a federal level, lawmakers are preparing for the 2023 Farm Bill with an aim toward supporting smaller agricultural producers and coping with drought and water supply issues.
While many people work to change policy and day-to-day practices related to water and drought in 2023, however, the weather appears set to stay much the same for at least another season.
According to the US Seasonal Drought Outlook published in mid-December, most of the western US appears poised to maintain drought levels or dry up even further. The High Plains is expected to keep its regional drought conditions until at least the end of March, according to the outlook, as the effects of La Niña linger across the country.
For the latest updates on water and drought on the High Plains, visit here. For the latest updates on local weather, news, and events, check with MyHighPlains.com.