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Worst Drought in Texas History Ravages Crops, Livestock

August 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Texas is caught in the grip of a devastating heat wave that has created the worst year of drought in the state's history. Gwen Ifill discusses the extreme conditions and their toll on crops, livestock and homes with NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn.
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GWEN IFILL: While towns and cities in the East have struggled to dry out, Texas is caught in the grip of a devastating heat wave that has created the worst year of drought in the state’s history.

Dallas alone has seen more than 60 days this year in the triple digits. The extreme conditions have contributed to wildfires that destroyed 25 homes in North Texas on Tuesday, wreaked havoc on the state’s agricultural economy and forced residents to ration water.

For more on this story, we’re joined from Dallas by Wade Goodwyn of NPR.

Wade Goodwyn, thank you for joining us.

So, tell me, how severe is this drought?

WADE GOODWYN, NPR: It’s the most severe drought that Texas has had in a single year ever. The state has dried out and it is burning up.

The — Dallas is — has — Dallas has had 63 days, I think, so far this year over 100. And this just isn’t 101. These are temperatures like 105 or 107 or 108. And that combined with the fact that we haven’t had water, rain, really since the fall of last year — this really all began the fall of last year. There was hard hardly any rain.

And then in the spring, there was nothing. And by the time we got to summer, we were in a very big mess, and that’s where we are right now.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a way to measure how much of this extreme condition is caused by the dry — the heat causing the dry brush, and how much of it is caused by water supply not only from the sky, but also from lakes and pipelines?

WADE GOODWYN: Well, it’s both.

I mean, the fact that we haven’t had any water has just been debilitating. But you add that with 107-degree heat and 105 — and it just never goes away. I mean, I’m a Texan. I have grown up here and lived here all my life. I don’t know that I can remember a summer that’s been just as crushingly hot as this one has been.

When you go out into rural Texas, it’s burned up everywhere. We have had almost three-and-a-half million acres that have burned up. I think it’s been something like 11,000 fires in the last year. And it doesn’t matter whether you go to West Texas, East Texas, South Texas. Central Texas is suffering terribly. You drive out in the country and you see brown land that’s been burned up by the sun or black land that’s been burned up by fire.

GWEN IFILL: How do you measure this in — in agricultural terms? There’s obviously a beef industry. There’s a cotton industry. There’s even winter wheat planting.

WADE GOODWYN: Five-point-two billion dollars and counting, that’s how we measure it so far.

If you go out at the cattle auctions, they’re having five and 10 times the number of cows for sale, because the state is emptying itself of its cattle. A cattle auction which would have between 500 and 1,000 cows will see 7,000 or 8,000 cows. The auction will start at 10:00 in the morning and go until 1:00 in the morning. Luckily, cattle prices are high, or else we’d really be in trouble.

The international demand for meat is pushing the price of cattle higher. So at least these ranchers aren’t selling in a down market. And by the end of…

GWEN IFILL: But they’re auctioning the — but they’re auctioning the cattle because they can’t support it?

WADE GOODWYN: That’s right.

I mean, a bale of hay is going between $65 to $85 for a bale of hay. There’s no way that you are going to keep a large herd going if you are having to pay that much for hay. And we usually use this hay in the wintertime. We’re having to use up all of what hay we have right now. What are we going to do when February comes? That’s going to be a big problem.

We need rain now. We need to start having rain in September and October, and we need lots of it, or else the situation is going to get a lot worse.

GWEN IFILL: You talked about the short-term impact on the economy.

Is there a long-term way of measuring this? You did a piece on NPR about the generation gap among ranchers as it is. Does this exacerbate who gets into the business, who thinks they can make a profit in it anymore?

WADE GOODWYN: You know, raising cattle has been an old man’s game. If you go to a cattle auction and look around the room, you will see that. A lot of these guys are in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

And it takes years, decades to a build good herd. And these ranchers are holding on to what they can, the good mother cows, their best bulls, selling everything else off and trying to hold on. But if you don’t have water, you will run the rubber off your tires trying to truck water in for your cattle. You’re just not going to be able to do that.

And so these herds are being sold. And if you’re 65 or 70 years old and you have built your herd for 40 or 50 years, you are going to get out of the business. That’s going to be it. I think, nationally, we’re going to see meat prices rise as we move into the fall and winter months.

GWEN IFILL: Even though the ranchers are still being able to sell their herds for good price, are we, the rest of us who are actually buying the meat, buying the cotton goods, are we paying the price?

WADE GOODWYN: You will be. These prices are going to go up.

And the fact is, when these ranchers sell off their herds and they decide not to get back in, where’s those — those new herds going to come from? It will take time to rebuild the stock of cattle in Texas.

I was talking with the Farm Bureau. And as a way of trying to reassure me, the Farm Bureau told me, well, I think there will always be a cattle business in Texas. And I was thinking to myself, well, what? I mean, the fact that he had to reassure me that there’s always going to be cattle business in Texas was a shock to me, and I think it was indicative of just how dire things are across the state.

GWEN IFILL: As you talk to people, to farmers, to ranchers, to people who depend on rain, do they have any innovative or alternative ideas about how to cope with this crisis, other than to get down on their knees and pray for rain?

WADE GOODWYN: Not really.

It’s kind of heartbreaking. You see these cattle, they’re like stick figures with blankets thrown over the top of them. It’s pathetic to look at. And the horses are even worse. At least there’s a market to take the cattle to. Horses are being sold for $10, $15, $20 a horse or given away. At the auction I was last week, they gave a mare and two foals away.

Or they’re being abandoned on the roadside. And what to do about the horses is a real issue in this state. As to what to do about this, really, it’s just pray for rain. If you have — if your water has dried up on your property, there’s nothing you can do. You have to sell your stock. It’s one thing if you can bring hay in, but, really, if you have dried up, you’re done.

GWEN IFILL: Well, here’s the big question: What’s the weather report look like?

WADE GOODWYN: There’s no relief in sight. It’s 105 out there right now. There’s no hope for rain in North Texas any time soon. There’s a tropical storm in the Caribbean, and we’re all hoping it comes our way.

GWEN IFILL: So, Wade, you’re actually hoping for a tropical storm.

WADE GOODWYN: Yes, we’d love to have a small hurricane or a tropical storm. That’s what this state needs.

There’s one that is building in the Caribbean, and they’re not sure where it’s going yet. But it would be a relief to have that storm come ashore, not do too much damage, and then slowly move across most of the state. That’s what farmers, ranchers, really everyone is praying for here. We need rain.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s what the East Coast is hoping, that you take some of their rain.

Wade Goodwyn of NPR, thank you so much.

WADE GOODWYN: It’s my pleasure.