Recent snow helps, but not enough to dampen drought concerns on the South Plains
Earlier this week, snow fell across different parts of Texas. But, it didn’t do much to help drought conditions in the South Plains region. After a dry 2020, farmers and other agriculturists hope for more precipitation this year.
On Wednesday, there was still snow on the ground at the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Center, just north of the Lubbock airport. The South Plains may be known for cotton, but they also grow several other crops at the center for research.
Rebekah Pustejovsky is a research assistant at the center and a graduate student at Texas Tech University. She points to the plot of plants she’s studying, guar.
“It’s a lesser known legume that is really pretty unique for the environment,” she explained. “It likes heat so it can be grown here.”
But not every crop can withstand the dry heat on the plains. Pustejovsky said a wheat crop at the research center was in trouble before the weekend snow.
“If it hadn’t rained or it hadn’t snowed, if we didn’t get anything by February, it’d be pointless,” she said. “Honestly, it’d be sad.”
Before the snow, sorghum and wheat farmer Scott Irlbeck said his crop was delayed and stalks were short when it did emerge. It was a relief after months of drought conditions.
“Wheat is one of those crops that loves snow,” Irlbeck said. “One, the moisture. And two, snow apparently has nitrogen in it. And so it’s kind of like a fertilizer that you don’t have to pay for.”
Irlbeck said he relies on an irrigation system for about half of the water he needs for his crops. The other half comes from Mother Nature - who can be a bit temperamental.
“If we get moisture, I’m not going to complain,” the farmer said. “It’s always drier more times than it’s wet. So I’m not going to complain about moisture regardless of when it comes.”
Lubbock got 11.5 inches of precipitation in all of 2020. The National Weather Service reports that’s the tenth lowest yearly total on record. The average is around 19 inches. It wasn’t as bad as some years in the past decade, but still low enough for concern.
The new year has started off at least a little better, a good thing for the multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry in the Lubbock area.
“We had snow pretty widespread across the region,” said Charles Aldrich with Lubbock’s National Weather Service. “A dusting up in the Childress area all the way up to anywhere from nine to 11 inches. It helps. It definitely helps. But it’s not going to do a whole lot.”
Once it completely melts, the amount of snow that came down in the Lubbock area will equal less than an inch of precipitation. That’s according to Glen Ritchie, the head of Texas Tech’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. He said it also came at an unhelpful time for most crops.
“Generally, in December or January, you can expect to get about 50% of the benefit out of that water. If we were able to plant next week, we’d probably be in pretty good shape.”
Ritchie said timing is important in agriculture. Rain is most needed in the spring, when many crops are planted. After May of last year, the Lubbock area was exceptionally hot and dry.
He said almost all crops on the South Plains last year struggled in the warm, arid climate.
“If you don’t have rainfall, then your crop really suffers,” Ritchie said. “You can go from the potential of being able to get a bale of cotton per acre to suddenly you’re just plowing it up at the end of the year because the crop hasn’t produced enough to pay for itself”
Ritchie said irrigation systems are an option, but it gets expensive. Rain is what’s needed.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to get enough rainfall to be able to have a good growing season,” Ritchie said. “But it would surprise me if we had above average rainfall.”
Mark Wentzel with the Texas Water Development Board said the South Plains and Permian Basin regions are some of the most-affected by the current statewide drought. Areas in East and Central Texas received some rainfall at the end of 2020, helping the statewide status.
Precipitation can’t be guaranteed, but there could be some relief soon thanks to a change in weather patterns, like La Nina. It causes dry, warmer winter conditions in Texas.
“La Nina is expected to disappear somewhere late spring,” Wentzel said. “That might be the right timing to give you a better monsoon flow this year. That would be the good news scenario.”
The National Drought Mitigation Center reported Thursday that around 48% of Texas is in some degree of drought.
Texas Tech Public Media's Jayme Lozano contributed to this story.
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