Weather forecasters and agriculture experts in the southwestern U.S. state of Texas say there is no relief in sight for what already is the worst drought year on record. The searing heat and dry conditions have caused devastating wildfires in the western part of the large state and led to crop losses, cattle deaths and water rationing in areas of east Texas that are normally wet at this time of year.
Driving through the countryside northwest of Houston, one sees dried up fields, dying trees and livestock ponds that are not much more than a puddles of fetid, algae-covered water. In some towns, farmers' markets have been cancelled because local growers have little to offer. Those with wells for irrigation are struggling with the high cost of fuel to run their pumps.
Debbie Cross, who operates a farmers' market near Cypress, Texas, says people are becoming discouraged by the lack of rain and the high temperatures, which are around 40 degrees most days.
“The drought is hurting everything. It is hurting all the crops, the cattle, the hay. There is no grass. The chickens are miserable. I mean everybody is just miserable. We need water,” Cross said.
Cross says local farmers are unable to supply much fruit and vegetables and that she is getting by with produce trucked in from other states where conditions are better.
“We are getting it from the local southern states and southwestern states are kicking in -- Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Oklahoma. Everybody knows that the Texas market is a great consumer market, so they are helping out a lot here,” Cross said.
One of the hardest hit agricultural sectors is livestock. Texas is the biggest cattle producer in the United States and ships beef to many foreign markets. Earlier this year, ranchers endured one of the worst winters on record, with several days of subzero temperatures in a region where freezes are rare. The drought has made it even harder, driving up the cost of hay and leaving some areas so dry that cattle have died of thirst in their pastures.
One rancher who has managed to get through this crisis with most of her stock in fairly good condition is Dorie Damuth, owner of the Flying D ranch near Magnolia, Texas.
Damuth raises prize-winning Texas Longhorns for breeding and she has managed to find hay and enough water to keep them alive. She says she has seen dry spells before, but nothing that compares to this year.
“The drought is something I, as a cattle woman, and all of my fellow cattlemen and cattlewomen have never experienced before. This is probably the 100-year drought, just like you can have a 100-year flood. It is very devastating for all of us ranchers who work so hard to provide beef for our country as well as for around the world,” Damuth said.
In a dried up lake on her property, there is a Longhorn skull sitting on top of cracked earth that is muddy and soft underneath.
“We have had lakes and stock ponds on the ranch that have dried up because of no rain, no rainfall. They will dry down to a little mucky place in the middle that is still wet and the cattle will sometimes go down and try to get water and they can't. And they step into that mucky mud and it is kind of like quicksand, and they can't get out.”
Lately, there have been beautiful fluffy clouds floating over the area. But ranch hand Chris Quinters is not encouraged by them.
“Those are some nice clouds, but it don't look like they are going to bring any rain,” Quinters said.
Forecasts cite the possibility of scattered showers in the days ahead, but such little rain is expected to provide little relief. This is the time of year here in the Gulf of Mexico region when people usually worry about potentially devastating tropical storms and hurricanes. But his year, Damuth says she would welcome the rain such storms bring.
“I never thought I would see the day when I would pray for a hurricane to come and that we would get the dirty side of a hurricane. We have not done that so far, but I think it would be helpful to us,” Damuth said.
Hurricane Irene is now in the eastern Caribbean Basin and could threaten Florida later this week. But so far, there are no storms moving toward the dried out pastures of Texas.