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Drought Still Has Death Grip on Oklahoma Panhandle

Drought Still Has Death Grip on Oklahoma Panhandle

Assistant state climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, Gary McManus (center), videos the extreme wind erosion occurring on exposed land. Cimarron County Conservation District employees, Iris Imler, clerk, and Jim Belford, district technician, gave McManus a tour of the devastating area on June 24.
Assistant state climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, Gary McManus (center), videos the extreme wind erosion occurring on exposed land. Cimarron County Conservation District employees, Iris Imler, clerk, and Jim Belford, district technician, gave McManus a tour of the devastating area on June 24.

Dry, sandy soil is quickly blown out of the hand of Cimarron County District Conservationist Cherrie Brown. She stands in a field that has intense wind erosion in a wheat field that had no residue to hold the soil in place.
Dry, sandy soil is quickly blown out of the hand of Cimarron County District Conservationist Cherrie Brown. She stands in a field that has intense wind erosion in a wheat field that had no residue to hold the soil in place.

This national drought monitor map was published on July 10. The D4 drought category, which consumes Texas and Cimarron Counties, is defined to indicate a 1 in 50 year occurrence.
This national drought monitor map was published on July 10. The D4 drought category, which consumes Texas and Cimarron Counties, is defined to indicate a 1 in 50 year occurrence.

Residue on both sides of the tilled area of this field is protecting the soil from erosion.
Residue on both sides of the tilled area of this field is protecting the soil from erosion.

In the background of this photo, it is evident how residue in this irrigated field is helping to save the soil; whereas in the foreground area where the crop failed, there is significant wind erosion that has exposed hard pan.
In the background of this photo, it is evident how residue in this irrigated field is helping to save the soil; whereas in the foreground area where the crop failed, there is significant wind erosion that has exposed hard pan.

It is officially the “worst of times” in the Oklahoma Panhandle. On June 19, the US Drought Monitor upgraded the situation to its most severe drought rating: “D4 – Exceptional” for Cimarron and Texas Counties.

Despite conditions that are even dryer than the historic Dust Bowl of the 1930s, another catastrophic dust bowl is being averted thanks to conservation practices that have been put in place for the last 70 years.

Gary McManus, assistant state climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, who advises the national drought monitor, toured Cimarron County on June 24, with Cherrie Brown, USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist in Boise City and Cimarron County Conservation District employees Iris Imler and James Belford. Oklahoma’s Secretary of Agriculture, Terry Peach, toured the area with the Cimarron County Conservation District board, Imler, Belford, Brown and county commissioners on July 2, to get a first-hand understanding of how severe the drought is.

The drought situation is indeed exceptionally severe: farmland is blowing away, cattle are being sold due to lack of feed, wells are going dry and crops are dying in the ground. This has significant impact in two counties that are completely reliant on agriculture production to support their economies. Recent storm clouds brought hope, but yielded little to no rain.

“Everything here is blown away, baked or sold off,” Brown said. “It is so hard to see ranchers selling off their entire herd when they are cows who have been part of the ranch for generations. They know these cattle by name; they were part of the family, not pets.

“This is seriously affecting people’s lives,” Brown said.

“As bad as it is, I really saw a lot of great work being done by farmers to save the land,” McManus said of his trip to the area. “I also saw instances where conservation practices weren’t being used and saw the great damage being done above and beyond what Mother Nature has done.

“I really have to commend the farmers and ranchers out there for the conservation practices they have applied,” he continues. “That is what makes this drought, and the drought of the 50s, different than the Dust Bowl. Through the Dust Bowl experiences people learned how to take better care of the land and that’s evident in a situation this severe.”

McManus, who was raised in Buffalo, Oklahoma, is very familiar with the Oklahoma Panhandle, yet was still unprepared for impact the drought had on the land.

“I was really demoralized it was so awful,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting Lake Etling to be dry or the country to be so gray and dead.

Boise City, in Cimarron County, has only received 1.72 inches of rain this year, a record low. Normal rainfall from January through June is supposed to be 9.25.” The area ended 2007 with only 10.44” of rain recorded, an over eight inch deficit from the 18.68” normal average annual rainfall amount. The area would have to receive over 15” of rain just to catch up to normal.

Raised on a ranch in Texas County, and the wife of a local farmer and rancher, Brown has been helping Oklahoma Panhandle residents apply conservation practices to their land during the past 20 years where she has worked for the NRCS. She credits her co-workers, Iris Imler, the Cimarron County Conservation District clerk, and Jim Belford, district technician, and the Cimarron County Conservation District Board, for helping landowners apply so many conservation practices on the ground.

It stands to reason that the NRCS has played such an influential role in this drought situation. The agency was created as the Soil Conservation Service within USDA on April 27, 1935, in response to the devastation of the Dust Bowl on the nation’s agricultural land. The agency’s primary mission then was to conserve soil on agricultural land. It became NRCS in 1994 to better reflect its expanded role of servicing other natural resources such as soil, water, air, plants, and animals on private and tribal lands.

“Residue management is the biggest thing that has helped us out here,” Brown says. “It has increased yields over time and we have better moisture management with less evaporation in those fields.”

In addition to residue management and no-till, Brown says many farmers in the county are adapting irrigation water management to a higher technology, as well as installing field borders, all which help reduce wind erosion and conserve water. They also practice crop rotation and plant cover crops for seasonal cover and other conservation purposes.

Ranchers are implementing practices such as prescribed grazing, fencing, water establishments, grass seeding, windbreak establishment, that not only assist in protecting resources but in keeping erosion to a minimum.

“The people around here learned their lessons in the Dust Bowl and the drought of the 50s,” Brown says. “They know it can get bad and they take care of the land year in and year out, so when a drought does hit, it helps protect their resources a little more.”

“Nearly everyone in the farming community around here has a conservation plan and tries very hard to follow those plans,” she adds.

By Dee Ann Littlefield, public affairs specialist, Waurika, OK
NRCS July 2008

Last Modified: 07/10/2008

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