Drought affects rural, urban areas of state
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2013
1/26/13 at 7:15 AM
Related story: City officials: Rationing not yet needed.
Tulsa World Weather: Check out a weather site powered by the Tulsa staff of the National Weather Service. The partnership allows Tulsa World readers to receive weather alerts, forecasts and current conditions as the staff issues them.
The drought's scorched earth and cracked soil have hit Oklahoma with about $2 billion in damage in the past two years, and the effects are being felt in large and small ways.
For Hominy rancher Jerry Lemons, it meant selling off 50 percent of his herd.
For Tulsa residents, it will mean higher food prices, harder gardens to keep and possibly greater fire hazards and fewer places for recreational lake and river outings.
The domino effect started in rural farming areas and is now hitting city dwellers.
"The longer it goes, the more dominoes will fall," said Mike Spradling, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau.
"Sooner or later what we feel in agriculture, consumers will feel in time as well. When agriculture is effected by environmental issues, its long term and will impact consumers."
Food prices are expected to increase by 4 percent in the next year, as livestock herds are down and crops died before harvest.
Cities are facing water rationing, and Tulsa residents will see dying lawns, trees and plants.
Spradling said he believes the weather is cyclical and rain will come.
But, the drought-related problems are critical and more research is needed for adjusting during these extreme dry times.
"Maybe it's a wake-up call to take a look at some things, not just for the short-term," Spradling said. "This will force us to do things we might have put on the shelf for awhile. If this continues, we can't keep it on the shelf. We need to pull it down and do something."
'The rain will come'
Near an Arkansas River bend in Osage County, the Lemons River Ranch sold half its herd two years ago.
Ponds dried up on the property, leaving a dependence on four water wells. Hay is being trucked in from Texas to feed the livestock.
A load of feed, which lasts about a month, has gone from about $3,500 to $7,500.
"I've been in business for more than 50 years and this is the worst drought I've ever seen," Lemons said.
Lemons said he has some options including changing the types of livestock or crops on the land.
"You cannot pay off debts with no profit," he said. "We're going to try and hold on until the grass gets here, and from there, if it's still dry, we'll sell all we can."
In 2011, Oklahoma farmers had historic high rates of livestock liquidation.
This caused a short-term surge in the meat supply, but that is expected to change in the upcoming year.
"That livestock is gone now and you are going to see fewer animals sent to feed lots," Spradling said. "That is going to affect supply and demand. This is where consumers are really starting to see it.
"And in 2014, there may be another big jump. It's going to take awhile to get the herd numbers back up."
On the Lemons ranch, about 15-20 inches of rain is needed to get the ponds filled and soil where it needs to be. Lemons is optimistic his family farm can weather the drought, saying he remembers a bad one from the 1950s.
"The rain will come, it always does," he said. "When you see a steak in a store for $9 or $10, if you have the money, go ahead and buy it. It sure took us a lot to get it there."
Shop wisely and cook
In 2012, the drought caused about $426 million in losses to crops and livestock, wildfire property damage and municipal costs, according to researchers at Oklahoma State University.
This is on top of the $1.6 billion in drought-related agriculture losses in 2011.
The lower losses in the past year were because most livestock was sold previously; moisture from winter weather was enough for the smaller herds to graze on pastures and the drought did not hit until after the spring crops were harvested.
Most of the losses in 2012 come from crops - hay, alfalfa, soybeans, cotton and grain sorghum - with a setback of about $240 million.
The American Farm Bureau Federation forecasts food costs rising by 4 percent next year.
Food prices rose 1.8 percent last year and 4.7 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Knowing how to adjust a food budget and cook low-cost, nutritious meals are part of the programs offered by the OSU Extension Office in Tulsa, said Barbara Trincinella, area coordinator of the community nutrition education programs.
"As the drought has spread, certainly processed food and all food costs are going up," Trincinella said.
A program working with low-income families shows how to shop wisely and cook.
"They are especially feeling the pinch with rising food costs and (food stamps) not going as far as it used to," she said. "We help them learn to prepare foods at home and to use those benefits wisely, whether it's food stamps, personal funds or items received from a food pantry."
Other extension programs are open to residents of all incomes, and Trincinella sees growing popularity in locally grown food.
"We have a lot more people here producing some of their own foods, farmers markets have grown and through the horticulture department, people are learning ways to conserve," Trincinella said.
Conserve water, save cash
Lawns, trees and gardens are going to struggle this spring, said Brian Jervis, extension horticulturist of the OSU Extension Office in Tulsa and director of the Master Gardener program.
"This is worse than the ice storm we had back in 2007 because the first things to die on plants are the small roots," Jervis said.
"Plants really need small roots to pull up that moisture at a pretty good rate. Plants have to regrow those roots before they can start pushing carbohydrates and waters up to the leaves. We don't have those little roots this spring."
Late or sporadic blooms and bud breaks will be the first noticeable effect of the drought in gardens, Jervis said.
Plants started in the spring or last year may not make it through the winter, and even mature trees are going to be stressed.
"Not a lot of people are noticing things at this point but are realizing it's dry and watering," Jervis said. "Hydrate everything as best as possible."
Residents can conserve more water and save money by knowing how to best water a lawn, said Tracy Boyer, associate professor of agriculture economics at OSU.
People often don't know how much water their sprinklers use, don't know how much water their lawns need or how to best to apply it, Boyer said.
At least 50 percent of the water demand is lost through inefficient lawn watering, impacting home water pressure and overall quantity. The inefficiencies are from homes, not golf courses, she said.
"Even if a city is not as drought-stricken as rural areas, residents will get a hit in the wallet because of watering landscapes more," Boyer said. "They should have a self-interest in learning conservation and how to get more out of every drop of water. We don't know how long this drought is going to last."
Jervis said not to fertilize plants and lawns in a recovery attempt because the drought damage is below the soil in the roots.
Few, if any, options exist for residents of cities considering water rationing and conservations measures.
"If you can't water, there's not much we can do," Jervis said. "Just mulch and hope for moisture."
On the bright side, lawns are easier to revive and gardeners can put in new plants.
"Even though there will be a lot of lost plants, we'll be able to put in more plants in the springs and freshen things up," Jervis said.
Forecasting drought's severity, length is a difficult task
Climatologists saw dry weather coming when a La Nina period was detected in 2010, said Gary McManus, associate state climatologist of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.
"That set off alarm bells," McManus said.
What couldn't be forecast was the severity and length of the lack of moisture and the record-breaking temperatures of the last year.
Nineteen states set annual heat records, though Alaska was cooler than average, according to a National Climate Center report.
"It's very difficult to predict how long a drought is going to last," McManus said. "We look if there are large-scale climate influences and types of patterns that could bring rainfall. When we look now, some oceanic indicators are showing temperatures anomalies in a drier-than-normal pattern."
The National Weather Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center predicts lower than normal rainfall will continue through spring 2013.
Last year at this time, drought wasn't much of a concern, teetering between "abnormally dry" to "moderate" throughout the state.
A rash of spring rain washed the drought away for central and eastern counties.
Then, summer hit with a vengeance.
July started showing worry lines with lake levels going down and cracks appearing in the soil.
With temperatures reaching 114 in some areas of Oklahoma, coupled with wind gusts of nearly 40 mph, wildfires were easily spread.
The raging fires destroyed or damaged more than 700 homes and 114,000 acres in the state, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
By August, the Oklahoma Climatological Survey showed "extreme" drought in the central and eastern regions and the most severe "exceptional" conditions in the Panhandle.
As the fall progressed into winter, the state's land mass gaining the "exceptional" designation increased to about 37 percent in December.
On Jan. 9, federal officials declared a disaster area for the entire state of Oklahoma and parts of 13 other states.
This marks the second year all Oklahoma counties have been declared drought-related disaster areas. Some Oklahoma counties have been in a drought for more than two years.
The past two years have been the fourth driest on record in Oklahoma, with droughts from the '30s and '50s ranking higher, McManus said.
"Our society is built on consistent normal periods for the last 40 years," he said. "If it continues, it'll be a shock to the system."
The amount of rain needed in the next few months depends on whether it's for a farm, reservoir or yard, McManus said.
Without spring moisture, the summer could bring more severe wildfires and deeper economic setbacks.
"To please everybody, we need six to nine inches in the next month or so to get into a good position," he said. "But, we're in winter, so that is extremely unlikely. If we could get just normal to above normal, that would set the stage for summer without too many negative impacts."
- Ginnie Graham, World Staff Writer
Original Print Headline: Damaging drought
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Jerry Lemons feeds his cattle at his River Bend Ranch near Cleveland, Okla. He has reduced the size of his herd by half since the drought began. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World
Edenwood Apartment residents Dawn Johnson (left), Varetta Hill, Chicellia Willis and Francheska Willis, with her 1-year-old son, Caleb Alexander, listen as Stella Goudeau of the OSU Extension Office teaches a class about how to cook low-cost healthy meals at the complex's community center in Tulsa. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World
Jerry Lemons walks in his empty farm pond at his River Bend Ranch near Cleveland, Okla. The longtime farmer says "this is the worst drought I've ever seen." STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World