As February turned out to be historically dry for California, drought returned to the Golden State and expanded in parts of the Southwest. Southern Texas also dried out at a time of year when little rainfall is typically received, but plentiful rain in eastern Texas eased dryness.
During February, the NDMC added 22 impacts to the Drought Impact Reporter, with most of those for Texas where the dryness affected agriculture. California had the second most impacts as the landscape dried out, increasing the fire danger and raising concern about the upcoming fire season.
Southern Texas ag sees challenges, state of disaster declarations
Drought persisted in Texas through February, with southern parts of the state most affected. Dry conditions meant pasture, rangeland and winter wheat needed moisture, according to Texas AgriLife Today. In South Texas, hay was in short supply and some producers ran out. Supplemental feeding of livestock continued, while some ranchers hauled water and culled herds.
On Feb. 6, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for six counties in Central Texas, which faced a threat of imminent disaster, as reported in KXXV News Channel 25 in Waco. In January, 17 Central Texas counties received similar declarations.
California’s dry landscape heightens potential for harsh fire season
Winter storms missed California in January and February, allowing the state to dry out and snowpack in the Sierra Nevada to stagnate at a time of year that is typically the wettest. February turned out to be one of the driest ones on record for the state, as reported in the Los Angeles Times. Abnormal dryness and moderate drought expanded considerably, drying out fields and pastures and increasing the fire danger.
Livestock producers count on rainfall to encourage pasture growth to feed their livestock and suffer when rain is low. Northern California ranchers with unirrigated pastures were already giving their cattle supplemental feed as grasses dried out months earlier than usual, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle. Supplemental feeding does not typically begin until April or May.
In San Benito County, grass growth was slow, which drove up feed costs, and cattle were underweight, per KSBW-TV Salinas. Grass on Napa County hillsides was just four to five inches tall, compared to being two to three feet in height in the spring of 2019, according to the Napa Valley Register.
Dry conditions have raised concern about the fire season starting early and being more severe. In early February, there were numerous escaped debris burns in Northern California, keeping firefighters busier than normal, per KRCRTV.com in Redding. By Feb. 26, state firefighters had battled 280 small fires, compared to just 85 by that time in 2019, as reported by KRON 4 in San Francisco. In a rare February event, the U.S. Forest Service put out a fire at the 4,000-ft. level, where snow ought to cover the landscape at this time of year.
Oregon faces water shortage, slowed tree growth
Most of Oregon was abnormally dry in February, with nearly 43 percent of the state in moderate drought toward the end of the month. Water storage was low at Wickiup Dam, which has not recovered from the 2015 drought when the area received record low snowpack, per the Bend Bulletin.
As of Feb. 6, 2020, Wickiup was at 57 percent of capacity and will likely end the winter season at approximately 150,000 acre-feet, or about 25 percent below its 200,000 acre-feet capacity, meaning irrigators in Jefferson County will experience water shortages again in 2020. The reservoir has only completely refilled once since the very poor snowpack in 2015.
In western Oregon, increasing soil temperatures and low soil moisture were slowing the growth rate of trees by 2 percent, threatening commercial timber operations, per Capital Press in Salem. Affected trees may stop growing altogether within 50 years. Hemlock trees at lower elevations were most affected by drought as their growth rates have been slowing since the late 1970s.
Hay supplies low after fall flash drought
The flash drought that gripped parts of the eastern U.S. in late summer/early fall 2019 left producers feeding hay early as pastures went dormant and hay fields did not yield much hay for winter feeding. In Ohio, the hay supply was the fourth lowest in 70 years, and the yields were the worst since the 2012 drought, per NBC 4 WCMH-TV in Columbus.
Virginia farmers were in similar straits after drought reduced hay production and forced them to begin feeding hay early, cutting into winter supplies, according to the Culpeper Star-Exponent. Many farmers were searching for hay to purchase in state, but were finding that they had to purchase from neighboring states. Some parts of Virginia had adequate supplies, however. Hay prices were also higher than normal. Many pastures did not recover well after the drought, meaning farmers will have to feed longer than usual in spring 2020.
For more details, please visit the Drought Impact Reporter.