Irrigation saving Rio Grande Valley crops while dryland crops wither
Irrigated row crops in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have managed to weather this year's blistering drought, but dryland crop losses could top $25 million, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service economist.
"At this point, irrigated crops are doing well, especially when you compare them to losses we're already seeing in dryland crops," said Dr. Luis Ribera, an AgriLife Extension economist in Weslaco.
"Drought-related losses to dryland crops of cotton, corn and grain sorghum have already reached $11 million," he said. "But by the end of October when all the numbers are in, that total could jump to $26 or $27 million, if history is an indicator."
As of Aug. 13, some 67 percent of the dryland cotton had been written off to the drought, as well as 92 percent of the dryland corn and 16 percent of dryland sorghum, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency.
Of a total of 524,000 acres of all three crops, both irrigated and dryland, 102,000 acres have failed, the report shows.
But the drought may have helped irrigated crops this year since dry weather tends to produce fewer insect pests, Ribera said.
At this time last year, losses to both drought and Hurricane Dolly were estimated at almost $15 million. By late October, actual losses had topped $25 million, an increase of 72 percent.
"Crop losses are estimated at intervals throughout the growing season, but the actual numbers aren't known until the season is over and the numbers have been crunched," Ribera said.
"So while Hurricane Dolly may have been the culprit for crop losses last year," he said, "Dolly also helped fill the reservoirs we're drawing from now."
Despite the drought, the reservoirs behind Falcon and Amistad dams on the Rio Grande are still "sitting pretty" as the area moves into what is considered the rainy season, according to Erasmo Yarrito Jr., the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's deputy Rio Grande watermaster.
"Irrigation releases have been normal and inflows have been steady from Mexico and the Big Bend area, so our reservoirs are in good shape," he said.
Yarrito said the drought has meant a decrease in inflows from the Rio Grande Basin in Texas and New Mexico, but not enough to cause concern.
"Falcon is at 66 percent of capacity, and Amistad, which is the larger reservoir, is at 97.5 percent of capacity, so if Falcon needs water, we can move that in from Amistad," he said.
With the summer row crops being harvested, demand on the reservoirs through October will come only from citrus and sugarcane, as well as winter vegetable pre-plant irrigations, he said.
"Demand will subside after that, then pick up again in February as farmers pull pre-plant irrigations for the spring planting of row crops again. But as it stands now, we don't see any problems in meeting those demands."
Despite abundant supplies of water for municipalities, industry and agriculture, growers still require rainfall to leach plant-choking salts from soils that accumulate salinity from irrigation water, said Dr. Juan Enciso, an AgriLife Extension irrigation engineer in Weslaco.
"In addition to leaching salts from soils, rainfall is also needed for dryland growers whose properties don't have the infrastructure to irrigate," Enciso said.
The National Weather Service has rated most of the Valley as being in an "extreme" drought, with only one section of Cameron County rated as "exceptional," its most severe classification.
A burn ban remains in effect in Hidalgo County with only a slight chance of rain in the forecast.
Other dryland counties of the state still in the grip of the relentless drought have not fared as well as the Rio Grande Valley.
At least nine South Central Texas counties are experiencing their worst drought in history, and much of the state is facing the worst drought conditions in the country, according to Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, a Texas A&M professor of atmospheric sciences who also serves as the Texas state climatologist.
Among those nine counties is Kleberg County which, for the first time in more than a century, produced no cotton at all this year, according to John Ford, an AgriLife Extension county agent for agriculture based in Kingsville.
Kleberg County includes the entire cotton production area of the legendary King Ranch. Economic losses have totaled $50 million in that county alone, Ford said.
In late July, AgriLife Extension economists reported that agricultural drought losses throughout the state had reached $3.6 billion and by the end of the year could exceed $4.1 billion.