For the second year in a row, Mother Nature has dealt a heavy blow to agricultural producers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, according to an economist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Weslaco.
“Last year it was Hurricane Dolly that helped rack up losses of just over $25 million,” said Dr. Luis Ribera. “This year, the drought claimed just over $19 million.”
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency, final tallies for 2009 show that almost half of the total acreage of cotton, corn and sorghum was lost to the drought.
“Of almost 524,000 acres planted in 2009, we lost just over 255,000 acres, or about 49 percent, to drought,” Ribera said. “Losses totaled $19.13 million.”
Despite the higher financial losses in 2008, more acres were lost this year than last.
“That’s because more cotton was planted in 2008, and cotton is a higher-value crop than sorghum or corn,” Ribera said. “Had more cotton been planted in 2009, losses would have been much higher this year.”
According to the USDA report, the four-county area at the southern tip of Texas lost roughly 77 percent of its cotton, 34 percent of its corn and 45 percent of its sorghum.
"The highest losses came in the dryland planting of those three crops,” Ribera said. “Of the $19 million in losses, irrigated crops only accounted for less than $1.4 million of that. This just reemphasizes our dependency on Rio Grande irrigation water.”
Despite a recent trend among Valley growers away from cotton, Ribera expects that will change.
“We’re likely to see more cotton planted in 2010 for two reasons,” he said. “One is that cotton market prices seem to be on an upward trend, likely due to a decrease in cotton production in the U.S. and China. The other is the need for crop rotation. After two years of planting sorghum, yields are starting to decrease so growers need to replenish their soils by rotating in a crop of either cotton or soybeans.”
With market prices in the mid-60s cents per pound of lint, Ribera suspects growers will opt for cotton instead of soybeans.
“Cotton market prices have been low for several years, at or below 50 cents per pound,” Ribera said. “But since April, they’ve been on an upward trend, probably due to an increased demand worldwide for lint. As of Nov. 5, the market cash price was at 62 cents per pound.”
Rio Grande reservoir levels should not be a major concern in the foreseeable future for those growers who irrigate, according to Erasmo Yarrito Jr., the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Rio Grande watermaster.
“The reservoir at Falcon Dam is at 64 percent of capacity, and Amistad, which is the larger reservoir, is at almost 96 percent capacity,” he said. “That’s a combined U.S. storage capacity of 82 percent, which is much higher than the trend of the past five years.”
The exception was last year, Yarrito said, when both reservoirs were above capacity due to excessive rains and flooding on the Mexican side of the Upper Rio Grande River Basin, a major source of South Texas water.
“Hopefully, Mexico will have a wet winter,” Yarrito said. “Since many of their reservoirs are already near capacity, rain would prod them to release water that could be captured in our reservoirs.”
Rain is not necessarily in the forecast for deep South Texas, however. Weather experts report that weather patterns are not conducive to a wet winter.
Jeral Estupinan, the science officer at the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said although this is an El Nino year, conditions do not seem strong enough to clearly predict a wet impact on South Texas.
“Our chances of a wet winter are better this year than last, but there are no guarantees that El Nino will produce rains at this latitude,” he said. “And unfortunately, not all fronts produce measurable precipitation through our area. We can’t rely on cold fronts to promote precipitation this winter. The exception could be along the coast on the tail end of cold fronts, but it is very difficult to predict.”
Estupinan said the Rio Grande Valley typically needs wet summers in order to have a normal rainfall year, which did not happen this year.
“Although we achieved normal rainfall for part of the summer, it was not enough to alleviate the drought. We had a very dry summer and the hottest summer ever for McAllen and other areas of the Valley,” he said.
Alfredo Vega, a hydro technician at the weather service, said deep South Texas is five inches to 11 inches below normal rainfall. Normal rainfall in Brownsville is 27.5 inches per year.
"In the short term, most areas are below normal rainfall, and drought conditions in South Texas range from normal to moderate to severe, depending on the county,” he said.