By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Some 5.6 million urban shade trees were killed by the record drought that baked Texas last year, the Texas Forest Service reported on Wednesday.
Last year was the driest year on record in the state and the second-hottest, according to the National Weather Service.
The shade tree die-off represents some 10 percent of the state's urban forest, and is in addition to as many as a half-billion rural, park and forest trees that the forest service reported in December were killed in the drought.
The impact of the drought will be visible for decades because of the loss of the trees in yards and parks and along streets of the state's cities, according to the service.
The urban tree canopy loss may be far from over, said forest service lead researcher Pete Smith. Even though the drought appears to be easing in some parts of the state, many trees have been stressed beyond repair, he said.
"This means we may be significantly undercounting the number of tees that ultimately will succumb to the drought," he said. "That number may not be known until the end of 2012, or ever."
Removing the trees could cost homeowners, utilities and local governments some $560 million, according to the forest service. Dead trees in urban areas present a safety hazard, and have to be removed so that they do not fall onto power lines, pedestrians, and streets, the service said.
The loss of shade trees will cost Texans an additional $280 million in higher utility bills, according to Smith. And property values will be depressed by the loss of monumental oak and mesquite trees that pepper many Texas lawns.
The report comes amid a glimmer of hope that the worst of the drought may be receding.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor report this week lists more than a third of the state, mainly the Dallas Ft. Worth area in North Texas and eastward, as being completely out of drought for the first time in 10 months.
Fourteen percent of the state is listed as being in "exceptional" drought, the most severe category, compared with more than 41 percent three months ago.
Much of the urban water rationing that came with the drought is also being lifted.
The Edwards Aquifer Authority, which manages the massive underground aquifer that is the prime source of water for about four million people between south Austin and the Big Bend area of west Texas, on Monday lifted restrictions for the first time since April 2011.
"Unless we continue to have some good rainfall, the lifting of water restrictions might be short lived," Authority Vice President Roland Ruiz warned.
The restrictions limited homeowners to watering their lawn no more than once every week or two weeks, and restricted other uses of water ranging from decorative fountains to the serving of water to patrons at restaurants.
(Reporting By Jim Forsyth; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Tim Gaynor)