Drought-weary Texans welcome rains, wildflowers

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 26, 2012 2:58 PM
Drought-weary Texans welcome rains, wildflowers

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - San Antonio resident Janet Garibay is starting the process of bringing her lawn back from the dead.

"Our yard was destroyed by the drought," said Garibay, who visited a local home-improvement store on Saturday to pick up shrubs, plants and grass seed. "We're hoping that this rainier weather will help us put it together again."

As spring approaches, recent rains across much of the state are giving drought-weary Texans hope that the devastation may be over.

The drought that destroyed Garibay's lawn also killed millions of trees, sparked wildfires that burned nearly 4 million acres and caused billions of dollars in losses to the state's farming and ranching industries. Last year was the driest year on record in Texas, and the second-hottest, according to the National Weather Service.

Now, a little more than a third of the state - and none of the state's four largest metropolitan areas - is suffering from extreme or exceptional drought, according to a survey released last week by the U.S. Drought Monitor. By contrast, last September, nearly 97 percent was in one of those two most severe categories.

Parts of Texas received more rain in the first six weeks of 2012 than they received in all of 2011, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.

The drought still lingers in lightly populated parts of West Texas, the Texas Panhandle and in the brush country that hugs the Gulf Coast south of Corpus Christi. But San Antonio and Austin are only in moderate drought; Dallas-Fort Worth has emerged from the drought entirely; Houston is listed just as abnormally dry; and a large stretch of North Texas is back to normal moisture levels, according to the survey.

Heavy rains in January and early February were a welcome sight to farmers who suffered more than $5 billion worth of crop damage in last year's drought, according to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. The drought has resulted in higher consumer prices for everything from beef to peanut butter.

Even non-food items like clothing were pushed up by the dry spell, as much of the state's cotton crop was destroyed. Texas produces 55 percent of the nation's cotton.

"Planting is going on in much of Texas and fields are being prepared, so these rains could really make or break many producers' seasons," Staples said.

That said, the state still remains abnormally dry, and with some lakes dozens of feet below average levels, farmers are just two dry weeks away from parched fields in which crops couldn't germinate, Staples said.

"With such a long season, we need sustained rains, and we need a major rain event to fill up our reservoirs," he said.

Nowhere is the spotty nature of the drought recovery more obvious than in the area west of Austin known as the Highland Lakes, a series of reservoirs on the Colorado River watershed that provide water to millions of residents, businesses and farmers from northwest Texas to the Gulf Coast.

Some of the lakes are near their usual levels, but others remain 40 feet or more lower than this time of year. Residents of Spicewood Beach, on Lake Travis northwest of Austin, are relying on water that is delivered daily by truck, according to Clara Tuma of the Lower Colorado River Authority.

"We expect to bring in four or five tanker truckloads of water per day, and we will continue until the wells fill back up again," she said.

The LCRA last week approved new water management rules that could severely restrict water to rice farms along the Gulf Coast in the event of the return of intense drought.

But wetter weather is expected this spring. April and May should provide more moisture, according to Nielsen-Gammon.

And the colorful Texas wildflowers - all but invisible last year - have begun to sprout. Damon Wiatt, a senior botanist at the University of Texas' Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, said that the recent winter rains should yield a bumper crop of bluebonnets in rural Texas this spring.

(Reporting By Jim Forsyth; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Dan Burns)