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USDA-NRCS Research Verifies Record Setting Drought

story by Dee Ann Littlefield

Even with recent rains, it's still officially dry in Texas. Soil scientists from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have collected data that supports record breaking low precipitation not only for the 2011 calendar year but also for the last 12 month period on the Southern High Plains - one of the state's top agriculture producing areas.

The rich, fertile soils in this area make it ideal for farming, but the extended drought has had long-lasting impacts on the agriculture industry.

"Rainfall deficits coupled with high temperatures and excessive winds during the early part of the 2011 growing season contributed to the severity of the drought," says Craig Byrd, NRCS Soil Survey Project Leader in Lubbock.

While scientists have determined 2011 was the driest year on record, economists estimate it was also the costliest drought ever recorded. Texas AgriLife Extension estimates the agriculture industry, which is the state,s second largest industry, suffered a $7.62 billion loss. This is more than $3.5 billion higher than the 2006 drought loss estimates, which previously was the costliest drought on record.

The Southern High Plains is the state's top cotton-producing area. The cotton industry alone lost $2.2 billion in 2011. The Southern High Plains is also a top producer for corn, wheat, and sorghum. The state's grain industry lost a combined total of $1.4 billion, according to recently released information from Texas AgriLife Extension.

The 2011 rainfall data for the Southern High Plains was collected through the Soil Climate Analysis Network (SCAN) stations at six monitoring sites located at Willow Wells and Crossroads, New Mexico and Lehman, Levelland, and Lubbock (Reese Center), Texas through the National Water and Climate Center.

Climate Station Location 2011 Calendar Year Total Cumulative Precipitation (inches) as of October 20th Normal Cumulative Precipitation (inches) at this time of year (County TAPS Station 30 yr. avg.) Total Cumulative Precipitation (inches) for the last 12 months as of October 20th, 2011
Willow Wells, New Mexico 2.68 15.33 3.95
Crossroads, New Mexico 3.44 15.33 na
Lehman, Texas 4.07 16.78 5.06
Levelland, Texas 3.22 17.98 4.93
*Lubbock, Texas 2.94 17.30 4.25
* The SCAN site at Reese Center is currently down; data referenced is from the West Texas Mesonet Site also located at Reese Center in Lubbock.

Since January 2011, rainfall totals recorded at the SCAN locations ranged from 2.68 to 4.07 inches of precipitation. Normally this range should be somewhere between 15.3 to 17.9 inches for the region. In 2011 the cumulative rainfall total for Lubbock (Reese Center) is 2.94 inches. The 30 year average is normally 17.3 inches for Lubbock at this time of year. Cumulative rainfall over the last 12 months at Lubbock (Reese Center) totals 4.25 inches which Byrd says undoubtedly qualifies this as a historical drought since data has been collected.

According to Byrd, another factor adding to the severity of the drought during the 2011 growing season was record breaking high temperatures during the months of June through August. The daily temperature average at Lubbock was 83.4 degrees Fahrenheit where the 30 year average is normally 78.7 degrees Fahrenheit. The daily high temperature at Lubbock during this same period was 97.8 degrees Fahrenheit and the 30 year average is normally 91.0 degrees Fahrenheit. Many daily high temperatures reached well over 100 degrees for several consecutive days during this period as well.

Climate Station Location Averaged Daily High Temp (June - August 2011) Daily Average Temperature (June - August 2011) Averaged Daily High Temperature (June - August) County TAPS Station (30 year average) Daily Average (June - August) County TAPS Station (30 year average)
Willow Wells, New Mexico 97.1 82.6 90.8 75.4
Crossroads, New Mexico 96.5 82.1 90.8 75.4
Lehman, Texas 97.8 83.4 90.0 76.0
Levelland, Texas 99.0 84.6 91.4 76.8
Lubbock, Texas 97.8 83.4 91.0 78.7

Although spring winds are not unusual for the High Plains of Texas the excessive heat combined with high winds was a mixture that also contributed significantly to the depletion of what little moisture was retained in the soil. During this period wind speeds averaged daily about 9.7 miles per hour during the months of April, May, and June which is higher than most years. Peak wind speeds during this period were in excess of 40 miles per hour.

Daily Average Wind Speed mph (April - June 2011) at SCAN sites Daily Average Wind Speed mph (April - June) at SCAN sites
10.2 8.3**
9.0 8.5*
9.8 6.7**
9.9 9.4**
na 11*
* 2008 SCAN wind data
** 2009 SCAN wind data

Throughout the year the percent plant available soil moisture was extremely low. Soil moisture levels are measured at the SCAN sites as a water volume fraction and multiplied by 100 and shown as a percent range. In general the 35 to 45 percent range is a very wet or saturated soil profile, 15 to 35 percent is a moist or very moist soil profile at field capacity with available plant moisture, less than 15 percent is a soil that is very dry or at permanent wilting point with no available plant moisture in the profile. The average rooting zone for annual crops grown on the High Plains is typically between 2 and 40 inches. For a period of the year, this zone was at permanent wilting point with zero available plant moisture. Perennial plants, trees, and shrubs will root to greater depths but soil moisture levels at 60 to 80 inches range from wilting point to the low end of available plant moisture.

Climate Station Location Percent Moisture in the Soil (October 20th 2011)
  2 inch 4 inch 8 inch 12 inch 20 inch 40 inch 60 inch 80 inch
Willow Wells, New Mexico 0.8 3.4 1.2 8.3 15.3 14.5 8.2 8.6
Crossroads, New Mexico 3.3 6.9 7.9 10.5 8.2 13.1 12.1 14.2
Lehman, Texas 6.7 7.5 9.2 7.9 6.9 10.9 11.2 4.1
Levelland, Texas 13.5 15.5 14 13.7 12.3 4.5 21.1 20.4
Lubbock, Texas na na na na na na na na

Climate Station Location Typical Soil Moisture Levels (October 20th 2008)
  2 inch 4 inch 8 inch 12 inch 20 inch 40 inch 60 inch 80 inch
Willow Wells, New Mexico 8.3 8.4 10 13.9 24.8 13.6 7.7 8.5
Crossroads, New Mexico 12.8 11.7 13.5 16.7 15.9 13 12.2 13.6
Lehman, Texas 16.8** 17.2** 19.3** 26** na 25.7** 11.7** 3**
Levelland, Texas 20 21.1 22.2 16.5 13.1 16.7 14.4 19.7
Lubbock, Texas 17 20.9 23.1 16.2 26.1 24 17.3 16.2
< 15% moisture is at permanent wilting point with zero available plant moisture
** 2006 SCAN site data

Rains throughout the state over the last two months seem to have improved prospects for some, but soil moisture profiles are still short. As the spring planting season is about to begin, farmers remain concerned for what the future holds.

For more information about the NRCS Soil Survey program in Texas, visit the NRCS Texas Soils page.

An NRCS Soil Climate Analysis Network (SCAN) station where precipitation data is collected. Despite the few inches of rain the South Plains has received in recent months, it is clearly not out of a drought situation.  This is the latest update from the Drought Monitor.

An NRCS Soil Climate Analysis Network (SCAN) station where precipitation data is collected.

Despite the few inches of rain the South Plains has received in recent months, it is clearly not out of a drought situation. This is the latest update from the Drought Monitor.

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