2011-08-10 / Front Page

Heat wave meets D-3 designation

BY QUINTEN BOYD

As the summer heat wave inches toward state record territory, the temperature is affecting more than just the people of Cherokee County.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most of Texas is currently experiencing either extreme (D3) or exceptional (D4) drought, the two highest drought conditions measured.

Just over 47 percent of the USDA’s south region, which consists of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, is experiencing exceptional drought conditions. Most of that area is found in north and central Texas and western Oklahoma.

The majority of Cherokee County is under a D3 designation. Northwestern Cherokee, southwestern Smith, southeastern Henderson and northeastern Anderson counties are under D4 designations.

Most of East Texas is either under a D2 (severe), D3 or D4 drought designation.

Produce, plants, livestock and even insects are feeling the heat, now at day 40 of 100-plus degree weather in a period that is officially the most severe one-year drought on record in the state. This comes on the heels of conditions in June 2011, the hottest June ever recorded in the state.

“What’s on my mind is, with the continued lack of rainfall, we could see impacts on fish and wildlife that could be apparent for years to come,” said Cindy Loeffler of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).

The average temperature in July was 87.2 degrees, breaking the previous record of 86.5 degrees set in 1998.

The state also has the least year-to-date precipitation with 6.53 inches from January to July, shattering the previous record of 9.36 inches, set in 1917. The historical average amount between January and July is 16.03 inches.

“The extreme heat and unprecedented dry weather are crippling agricultural operations in Texas upon which all Americans rely for food, fuel, clothing and other daily necessities,” said Texas Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples.

“This historic drought has depleted water resources, leaving our state’s farmers and ranchers in a state of dire need.”

Texas would need more than 4.5 inches of rain over the next two months to avoid breaking the record for driest 12 consecutive months, set in 1956.

The damage can be felt in Cherokee County, where producers have lost their crops faster than in normal years.

“Most of our commercial vegetable produce has just burnt up a lot earlier and faster than in normal years due to the extreme temperatures and the drought,” said Cherokee County Texas AgriLife extension agent Aaron Low.

“As far as livestock, a lot of the creeks and puddles where they water are going dry. A lot of producers are saying those sources haven’t gone dry in at least 60 years.”

Mr. Low said producers are trying various methods to ensure their livestock receive water, but the drought is hurting another source used by cows for water.

“Producers are trying to move their stock to a better water source or giving them water from faucets and spigots,” he said. “That’s not really feasible with a large amount of cattle, though, especially since an adult cow drinks 20 gallons of water per day.

“Cows usually get their water through eating grass, but what little grass they have to eat now has little to no water in it.”

Mr. Low said he is answering calls from cattle owners looking for hay, but he is having trouble locating hay for anyone.

“I get calls and emails constantly from people looking for hay for their livestock, and I can’t even find it for my own cows,” he said. “It’s a struggle all around. There’s no forage and no water. Things look pretty bleak.”

Insects affected by heat

Texas AgriLife also did a study on the heat and how it affects insects.

According to the study, the drought conditions have made grasshoppers more of a problem in some portions of East Texas, but have reduced the populations of fire ants and horn flies. Entomologists say just because life is more difficult for insects, that doesn’t mean they’re gone.

“While most of the state has had a respite from mosquitoes due to lack of rain, it won’t take long for them to proliferate as soon as some areas get a little much-needed moisture,” said Dr. Roger Gold, entomologist at Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life. “Just because people aren’t seeing as many (fire ant) mounds, they shouldn’t assume their fire ant problems have been resolved.

“However, I’m sure most people in the state would gladly endure a few mosquito or fire ant bites if these came about as the result of a good rain.”

Mr. Low said the drought would have far-reaching implications, primarily because the area never recovered from conditions last year.

“We’re basically looking at the third year of a drought here,” he said.

“The past two years certainly weren’t as bad as this year, but last winter was extremely dry for an East Texas winter. Ponds and sources of groundwater haven’t had a chance to fill up from the past few years.”

Water levels in aquifer fine

Rusk City Manager Mike Murray said the city is not currently concerned about the levels of the city’s wells, but that citizens are being asked to conserve water where they can by limiting lawn watering, encouraging watering between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“We are monitoring our water wells more closely due to the drought,” Mr. Murray said. “Five of our six wells are doing fine; the other is just due for some scheduled maintenance. Considering the circumstances, we would ask residents to be a little more conservative with their usage.”

Mr. Murray said the city is not considering mandatory lawn watering rationing at this time, but will continue to monitor the wells and make adjustments as necessary.

“During the heat of the day, much of the water used for watering lawns evaporates instead of getting to the roots,” he said. “Water droplets on leaves can also intensify the sun’s rays and burn grass and other plants and leaves.”

Rusk Rural Water Corporation also established a voluntary outside watering ban and encourages watering between 9 p.m.-2 a.m. The company serves approximately 3,300 people in a 490-square mile area and replenishes its water with local rains.

Both Rusk Rural Water and the city of Rusk, as is the case with many counties in the area, draw their water from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer.

In Bullard, the city has issued a stage two water ration. Residents withanevenaddressnumber may do outside watering on Sunday,TuesdayandThursday, while residents with an odd address may water Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays.

All watering in Bullard must occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. No residents will be allowed to water on Fridays.

Mr. Low said the damage was far reaching, as he’s seen firsthand outside of Cherokee County.

“I was in College Station for a conference and, on the way down, I figured a town or area would get a little bit of rain,” he said. “It was just as bad all the way down, if not a little worse.”

‘We’ll see results for years’

Mr. Low said trees around the area are dying, and those that looked fine may only be fine on the outside.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of trees dying,” he said. “We’ll continue to see that for years to come. The trees are stressed, so they’re more susceptible to disease or to insects.”

Consulting forester James Houser of Jacksonville said the drought was wreaking havoc on trees, but it wasn’t the worst he’d seen.

“Although this year is bad, the late 70s through the 80s were worse than this year,” he said.

Despite this fact, Mr. Houser agreed there would be a decrease in the number of pine trees in East Texas over the next 20 years.

“We plant one million seedlings of pine every year, with about 100 million planted in East Texas,” he said. “With the lack of rain, the entire crop is virtually wiped out. In about 20 years, there will be a big dip in the availability of pines.”

Mr. Houser cautioned patience to people with hardwoods, saying not to cut them down quite yet.

“They may look like they are dead now, but may come back in the spring,” he said.

Commissioner Staples said the drought has caused “billions of dollars” of economic damage, and Mr. Low said Cherokee County was taking some of that damage.

“With the drought and the fires that have cropped up, the timber industry is taking a big hit,” he said. “Add to that the hits taken by the livestock industry and the commercial vegetable industry, it’s affecting everyone in the state and in the area.”

Mr. Low said he expected a few industries to raise prices on their goods due to the drought.

“Our sale barns are getting results that say we’re selling double the normal number of adult cows right now,” he said. “I foresee higher prices on beef just because of the law of supply and demand. The cows don’t have water sources, so they may not survive, which pushes the supply down.”

For the state to rebound, a lot of rain is necessary.

Some meteorology services predict widespread rain from tropical disturbances over the next few months, while others predict continued dry weather thanks to the La Niña weather phenomenon.

Mr. Low believes that 2011 may be too far gone for repair at this point.

“It would take a lot to turn this year around,” he said. “In my opinion, this year is basically beyond recovery. We’d have to get a lot of rain this winter to fill and renew sources of ground water.

“Hopefully, if that happens, then by next spring, the ground will retain enough moisture to start growing – but there are a lot of ifs in that statement.”

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