Mon April 2, 2012
The Historic Texas Drought, Visualized
A devastating drought consumed nearly all of Texas in 2011, killing livestock, destroying agriculture and sparking fires that burned thousands of homes. It was the worst single-year drought in the state's recorded history.
As part of NPR's state-based public policy reporting network, StateImpact, we created an interactive news application to show how state policy (and in this case, climate forces) have affected people's lives.
The interactive is broken up into four buckets: the history and the drought's progression, the impact and devastation, the policy choices and their limitations, and the Texans, who we hope will tell us their stories. To tell us your Texas drought story, comment on the app or leave us a voice mail at (512) 537-SITX (7489).
Elise Hu is the digital editor of NPR's StateImpact network, a collaboration among NPR and member stations examining how state issues affect people's lives. Read more about it.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's go to Texas now. That state has suffered through record drought. But there may now be signs of hope. Last year was both the driest ever and one of the hottest. Hundreds of thousands of cattle died as lakes, streams and reservoirs ran bone dry. A relatively wet winter has brought back some greenery and some optimism. But experts warn Texas is not out of the woods, and there are concerns that local authorities are not dealing effectively with the ongoing threat.
Terrence Henry of member station KUT in Austin our report.
(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)
TERRENCE HENRY, BYLINE: It's chow time for the cows at the Bastrop Cattle Ranch, east of Austin, Texas.
PATTI JACOBS: Girls. Here, get off the ground there. Sarah, eat off the ground, Sarah. There isn't any more. Come on. Come on. Come here. Here. Girls. Come on.
HENRY: Things were pretty grim a few months ago for rancher Patti Jacobs. Standing today on her 235-acre property, she reflects back to just how bleak it was last year.
JACOBS: Right now, we're looking at one of our stock tanks. That was completely dry. There was no water in there.
HENRY: And without rain, her grazing grass turned to dust.
JACOBS: Four months ago, this was just bare dirt. There was nothing.
HENRY: In the fall of 2010, Texas entered the worst single-year drought in its history. Without rain, lakes dried up, grass died and millions of acres burned in wildfires. For some ranchers, this year's wet winter was a godsend, but in the far western part of the state, the extreme drought continues. Neil Newsome, who grows wine grapes in west Texas, says he has yet to recover from what was a disastrous year.
NEIL NEWSOME: We had some zero-degree weather during the winter. It was cold - which is too cold for grapes. And then on May the 7th, we had the latest freeze in history, and we just thought it was getting bad. And then the drought starts. So, after that, all that was left was maybe the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs was next.
HENRY: And what about all that talk about a wet winter?
NEWSOME: We're still very dry. The winds are starting to kick up now, so the dust is starting to move around. So here we go again if we don't get some rains here pretty soon.
HENRY: So what did Texas do to get itself in this predicament? It's simple. Much like its government and citizens, the Texas climate is notably independent from the rest of the country.
RAYMOND SLADE: Very little water enters this state from outside of the state, and that's only on the Rio Grande. All other rivers originate from in the state. So when we don't have rain, this state's the one that suffers.
HENRY: That's Raymond Slade, a hydrologist who follows water issues in Texas.
SLADE: Things are green now, so people think the drought is over. But unfortunately, the lakes are still not full throughout most of the state, and the streams are still not back to normal. So this drought continues, as far as water availability.
HENRY: Patti Jacobs, the rancher from Bass Drop Cattle, is not about to get complacent just because of a favorable winter.
JACOBS: We lost, effectively, between 600,000 and a million head of cattle out of the state. And what most people don't realize is this wasn't a one-year drought. This actually has been going for three or four years, and we're not out of it yet.
TODD STAPLES: These numbers are unprecedented.
HENRY: That's Todd Staples, Texas' commissioner of agriculture. He says that total agricultural losses from the drought stand from $8 million.
STAPLES: And this is a new record for the Lone Star State. Unfortunately, we like to be setting new records. This is not the direction that we want to go.
HENRY: Everyone is hoping the relatively wet winter will lead to an even wetter spring. But some scientists, like Raymond Slade, aren't optimistic.
SLADE: It's projected it could get worse. We may have below what's been normal rainfall, could be below for the next several years.
HENRY: And for all the talk of funding plans for a dryer future, combined with a growing population, no one's sure where the money will come from. Texas is known for limited government and deep budget cuts. Slade finds himself frustrated.
SLADE: I've told many people that the drought needs to continue, because regardless of what scientists say, planners are not planning, the legislature is not funding money for drought management strategies. So the drought, in my opinion, needs to continue for another year or two to get people's attention.
HENRY: And for the farmers and ranchers in the West, that would only add to their misery. For NPR News, I'm Terrence Henry.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: That report on the drought in Texas comes to us from State Impact, a collaboration between NPR and member stations examining how state issues affect people's lives. For an interactive look at the drought in Texas and to share your stories, you can go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.