December brought drier conditions to the Pacific Northwest and eastern Texas, where drought expanded and intensified. Drought eased in the Southwest with winter storms bringing needed precipitation to deepen snowpack. Parts of the Southeast also benefitted from rains that nearly eradicated drought from the region.
During the final month of 2019, the NDMC added 33 impacts to the Drought Impact Reporter, with nearly half of those documenting agricultural concerns in Texas. Washington, California and Georgia followed with three, two and two impacts apiece, describing lingering issues such as tree deaths and water supplies. Ten states had a single impact listed.
Texas cotton crop, agricultural concerns
Cotton growers in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains saw the effect of a hot, dry summer on the cotton crop. A wet spring delayed cotton, and a hot, droughty summer followed that stressed dryland and even irrigated cotton, as reported by Texas A&M AgriLife Today. Blooms and bolls dropped from the stressed plants, reducing yields and adversely affecting quality, causing the fibers to become coarser than buyers prefer.
Average yields in the Panhandle ranged from 500 to 1,800 pounds per acre. In the South Plains, yields were down 20 to 30 percent in some fields, as little precipitation fell after crop establishment. Yields in irrigated fields were 1.5 to 2 bales per acre, while dryland fields produced one-quarter to one-half of a bale per acre.
In December, winter wheat and pastures in drier parts of the Lone Star State struggled to grow for lack of moisture. Dryland small grains in many parts of Texas were struggling and needed moisture, according to High Plains Journal in Dodge City, Kansas. Livestock producers continued to give supplemental feed to their herds, and in the South, hay prices were rising. Some producers culled cattle or hauled water as stock ponds were low, per Texas A&M AgriLife Today.
While there were many impacts for Texas, relative to other states, that does not necessarily mean that drought was much worse for the Lone Star State than elsewhere. Texas, being a populous state, has many news outlets and a weekly agricultural impact report from Texas A&M AgriLife Today that allows for better documentation of agricultural impacts, which increased impact counts for the state.
Washington State tree deaths, hunting affected
Dry conditions took a toll on trees in western Washington. Many western red cedars and western hemlocks died in the last two years, likely due to drought conditions or dryness in combination with fungal or insect attacks, as reported in Skagit Valley Herald. A project assessing tree and shrub species in the 2,800-acre Fidalgo Forest revealed that summer drought conditions affected the health of trees. Cedars and hemlocks displayed an observable and quantifiable increase in drought-caused stress and mortality, according to a University of Washington forest scientist.
In southwest Washington, the lack of rain has left the Shillapoo and Vancouver Lake state wildlife areas dry, with no ducks to be found, to the consternation of duck hunters. The Columbia River was too low to pump much water into the wetlands, according to The Vancouver Columbian.
At the end of December, snowpack in Washington was 47 percent of normal, similar to the start of 2015, a year of intense drought for the Evergreen State, per Capital Press. The concern was that 2020 could be another year of short water supplies in the Yakima Basin.
Georgia water supplies recovering
As Georgia continued to emerge from flash drought, water supplies were recovering, allowing the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to lift the Level 1 Drought Response for 103 counties issued in mid-October. Soil moisture and stream flows improved in extreme north, central and southeast parts of the state where heavy rain fell, according to the state climatologist, Bill Murphy, as reported by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
Wildlife populations affected by drought
Wildlife populations tend to take a while to recover from drought events, as evidenced by bird harvests in northern Montana. In early December, fewer upland birds were brought to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Havre check station for the 2019 hunting season as lingering impacts from the 2017 drought continued to be felt, according to the Helena Independent Record. For the eight weekends the check station was open from Oct. 12 through Dec. 1, the pheasant harvest of 501 birds was above 2018 at 18 percent, but 37 percent lower than the long-term average. The sharp-tailed grouse harvest of 63 birds was above the 2018 total, but about half of the long-term average. The Hungarian partridge harvest of 19 birds was equivalent to the 2018 total, but was well below the long-term average.
Scott Hemmer, a biologist in the Havre area and manager of the station, stated, “The continued lower upland bird numbers is likely due to the impact of drought conditions in the summer of 2017 along with the hard winter of 2017-18. However, pheasant production seemed better this year with 81% of the harvest consisting of juvenile birds.”
Colorado River Basin cutbacks
Starting in January 2020, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico were to take less water from the Colorado River as determined in the Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, per AZCentral.com. Lake Mead was in the “Tier Zero” zone, triggering the first water cuts. Arizona will take 192,000 acre-feet less in water deliveries, or a 6.9 percent cut in its total allotment. Nevada will get 8,000 acre-feet less, and Mexico will leave 41,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead.
For more information, please visit the Drought Impact Reporter.