Please, pray for rain,” says U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, member and former chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. A rancher himself, Lucas says the current drought is worse than any he’s seen in a lifetime of living in Oklahoma.
Persistent drought conditions over the last several years have had wide-ranging effects on the economy as well as the budgets of state and local governments and the consumer pocketbook at the grocery store, says Lucas.
Oklahoma agriculture is mostly non-irrigated, so farmers depend on rainfall for crops. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research shows that drought is especially impactful in farm states like Oklahoma.
According to researchers at Oklahoma State University and numbers from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Oklahoma has suffered about $2 billion in agriculture sector losses annually since 2010.
U.S. Drought Monitor research shows that water wells are drying up, ranchers raise less livestock and agriculture-related industries – such as equipment sales – are lagging. Municipalities feel the pinch to provide water, especially in western Oklahoma; and wildfires strain county budgets. Even tourism is impacted, as many lake levels have dropped significantly in the years since the drought began.
The drought is at its worst in five counties of southwestern Oklahoma, while 64 percent of the state is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought, says Jim Reese, secretary of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Reese, however, is reservedly upbeat about the future.
“While some will say we’re historically doomed for more droughts, I am hopeful we will receive the rain we need,” Reese says. “Negative projections are based on the fact that we went 20 years with wetter-than-average rain, and so they think it will be 20 years of drought to balance out the average. But I am optimistic.”
Many government-led proactive measures are underway, say both Reese and Lucas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated all of Oklahoma’s 77 counties a natural disaster area due to drought, which opens the door to USDA assistance and special provisions, including a two-year IRS tax deferral on livestock sales. Other measures include disaster loan availability and the exemption of oversized loads of hay on highways in Oklahoma and nearby states, as well as an updated and improved state hay registry and the formation of a pasture registry to assist producers.
Innovative planning is a priority, says Reese. Other actions afoot to address drought conditions include the passage in 2013 of the state’s first Drought Emergency Fund, providing $3 million in relief, loans and grants to agricultural producers and drought-affected municipalities for water projects. Also, Oklahoma State University is utilizing a $1 million USDA grant to tackle beef cattle climate adaptability and to research beef genetics for feed/water and natural resource usage efficiency.
Tom Buchanan farms cotton, wheat and cattle near Altus in southwest Oklahoma – the heart of the current drought. Buchanan is also president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and manages the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District.
“This is a drought of historic records, and we are still in its grips in western and southwestern Oklahoma,” he says. “The irrigation district started in 1946 to irrigate about 50,000 acres annually. Up until 2011, there was only one year in the 1950s where we had a minimal amount. But from 2011 to 2014, we have had zero release out of Lake Lugert.”
Buchanan places little value on wondering when the weather will change. Instead, he focuses on what it takes to survive the current conditions.
“My first cotton crop was in 1980, and I bought my first cow herd then, too,” says Buchanan. “I have fewer cows today as a result of having to sell them because of lack of water for them to drink. You make adjustments, like selling cows, but maintain a seed crop of cattle. You reduce your input to just scrape by until better times come. The agriculture producer himself, even with federal crop insurance, can recoup a portion of loss. However, the local infrastructure – like labor, seed sales, fertilizer and fuel – suffers. If I’m not making a payroll, then the guys aren’t buying groceries and shoes, so it negatively impacts the local economy greatly. Therefore, the state as a whole is suffering.
“I’m not sure people understand that when it starts to rain again, we will again produce crops that [immediately] will be back in the economic engine,” Buchanan says. “But the largest economic impact – the beef industry – will take years to rebuild, so the economy will suffer from lack of beef income for years to come.”
Buchanan adds that he hopes Oklahomans will learn from this drought and push to improve water resources so that all residents benefit, “because our lakes, pipes and wells are under a big strain,” he says. “It is time for Oklahoma to improve her water resources and make plans for the future, because there will eventually be another drought when this one ends.”
As bad as the current drought has been, it doesn’t compare to past dry spells in the region, including the Dust Bowl, says Lucas.
“The drought is the worst seen in my lifetime. My parents and grandparents talked about the 1950s and the great drought of the 1930s. But fortunately in this time in history, we have a safety net system that wasn’t in place then and which does help somewhat, such as crop insurance and some products to help livestock producers deal with drought that didn’t exist then,” Lucas says. “But most of all, conservation efforts have gotten better and stronger, technology has improved, seed germinates faster, equipment is faster – which means we didn’t get giant dust storms. Farmers and ranchers have become very conscious of conservation to keep our soil on the land and out of the waterways, therefore avoiding another environmental catastrophe.”
Weather is a constant focus for Gary McManus, state climatologist at Oklahoma Mesonet.
“We do look at similar oceanic patterns that occurred during some of our past droughts, such as the 1930s and 1950s droughts, and see how similar they are to the present situation,” McManus says. “When we compare the very dry period from 1950-1975 in our state’s precipitation history, we see very similar oceanic temperature anomalies such as El Niño and La Niña, Pacific Decadal Oscillation and Atlantic [Ocean] temperatures.
“Since the oceans have such a profound impact on the world’s air patterns, this gives us some indication that we might be facing a long-term drought such as the 1950s and possibly an extended dry pattern that we saw during that previous 25-year span,” McManus adds. “This is certainly not a prediction, but something we take into account, considering we just recently came out of our wettest 30-year period in the last 120 years.”
But what about Oklahoma’s most drought-stricken areas? Is there any hope for adequate rainfall in the near future?
“There is no relief in sight right now for western Oklahoma,” says McManus. “We’re entering the driest part of the year, so it would normally be tough to get widespread drought relief for the next several months. The good news is that it’s generally cool and the plants are dormant, so little water is needed [or] being used.”
While scientists and meteorologists study oceanic currents and weather patterns past and present, folks like Buchanan remain focused on the reality of running an agriculture business daily.
“For all the technology we have, weather prognostication past a couple of days is just a shot in the dark in my personal experience,” he says.