When explorer Stephen Long led his expedition across the western Great Plains in 1819-1820, it was during a period of widespread drought. With only a single reference point in time, he concluded the area “is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence”. He also marked the region on his maps as the “Great American Desert”, a label used by other map makers for decades to come.
A cold front blowing across the High Plains earlier this week brought drifts of tumbleweeds. It also created a haboob. That's a dust storm that typically last about three hours with sand and dirt forming a “dense whirling wall” up to 3,000 feet high according to the American Meteorological Society’s glossary.
Water is being pumped from Lake Meredith to supplement water wells in Amarillo. The Canadian River Municipal Water Authority reported recent rains have raised the water level at Lake Meredith from last year’s record low of 26 feet a current level of 43.5 feet according to a recent article from the Amarillo Globe-News.
When the wind picked up from the south on John Schweiser’s farm outside Rocky Ford, Colo., the sky would go black. A charging wall of dust would force the 80-year-old farmer and his wife to hunker down in their ranch-style farmhouse.
Much of the Midwest and the Plains have been battling drought for years. And the current winter wheat crop looks like it will be one of the worst in recent memory, stressing farmers in the heart of the Wheat Belt – from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska.
The drought is hammering fields, pastures, the Ogallala Aquifer, and Galveston Bay? StateImpact Texas reported researchers suspect drought is causing the massive fish die off. Millions of shad have washed ashore recently.
Oklahoma experienced very wet weather recently. That seems to have improved drought conditions, but only in the southwest according to the latest updates from The U.S. Drought Monitor noted a recent article by StateImpact Oklahoma.
California ranchers, despite near-record beef prices, are shrinking their cattle herds in response to one of the most severe droughts the state has ever faced, and many Western ranchers are taking advantage.
More than half of Kansas counties were placed on the updated Drought Declaration by Gov. Sam Brownback this week. 105 counties are either in an emergency, warning or watch status according to the Hays Daily News.
Increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation may not be cyclic. Dr. B.A. “Bob” Stewart recently released an analysis of data from 1895-2013 for the Texas High Plains. He found the area is getting warmer and drier, and the recent drought is not a temporary state according to a study by Dr. Stewart for WTAMU.
Forecasters say it looks like El Niño will reappear this fall. That usually means more rain for Texas, but one meteorologist says it will have mixed results in the Lone Star State reported StateImpact Texas.
Corn plants in the United States have become more drought sensitive, not less. Yields have continued to increase because seed companies have developed genetic improvements allowing higher planting density. Drought sensitivity could drive yields down in the years to come unless companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont successfully develop varieties that thrive in drought reported the National Geographic.
Even if you had no idea western Kansas was in the midst of a long-term drought, the scars are hard to miss. Corrals and roads are drifted with tumbleweeds. Irrigation ditches are bone dry. Fence rows are filled with drifted sand, and grass in the pastures has disappeared according to a recent article from Kansas Agland.
A trip to the county extension office for a botanical diagnosis of a sickly tree branch paid off with reassurance that all was well. While I was there I was also served up a refresher course in wise watering practices for our consistently dry and thirsty area. We reviewed some things I knew about, but am sometimes lax in following. And I learned a thing or two about making every precious drop of moisture count, even when rainfall is skimpy.
Midwest farmers that depend on recently drought-stressed rivers like the Platte, Republican, Niobrara, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi received some good news this week, along with Rocky Mountain skiers.
Oklahoma ranks number five in the nation when it comes to the number of cattle, but years of drought and high market prices are fueling a sell-off, and experts worry that the $4.5 billion dollar industry is in a downward spiral that will be difficult to recover from according to an article from StateImpact Oklahoma.