|March 3, 2006
Express-News Staff Writer
Washed by less than 11 inches of cool rain over 11 very dry months,
the San Antonio region was declared to be under the most severe
category of drought conditions Thursday.
The National Drought Mitigation Center reclassified the San Antonio
area and a large part of South Texas as suffering under "exceptional"
drought conditions - the most intense of five drought categories.
An exceptional drought is declared after widespread crop and
pasture losses, extreme fire risk and shortages of water in reservoirs,
streams and wells, creating water emergencies.
The center, based at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, works
with several federal agencies to assess the country's drought
situation and issues a weekly map and report.
"What's really capped it off has been the dryness of the
late fall and winter period, coupled with the warmth and winds
we've seen," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the
drought center. "The pattern has been pretty persistent where
high pressure has kind of rebuffed any moisture from coming up
from the gulf.
"There hasn't been a lot of moisture coming in off the Pacific
due to La Niña, and all of these ingredients are adding
up to where we're at now and it doesn't look good as we go into
spring," he said. "And the impacts will surely follow
soon - not just the fires, but the crops, the water situation
and the soil moisture situation. I wish I had better news to share."
"It's the worst I've ever seen it," said Kenneth Cole,
who farms in Uvalde and Zavala counties. "I've talked to
a lot of older people and they say it resembles 1956. But at least
in that 7-year drought period, they say, they would get a half-inch
or a quarter-inch every now and then. But we haven't had nothing."
Cole, who was planting corn Thursday, said he feels especially
sorry for livestock producers who depend on selling calves for
a living because there's no grass and no hay, and they're having
to sell off their herds.
"We've had to irrigate twice just to get the seeds to germinate,"
Cole said. "It's costing us a fortune. When the seeds start
coming up, I think all the wildlife, because they're starving
to death - the deer and the hogs and everything - they're going
to just inundate us because there's nothing else for them to eat.
"I think it's going to be a futile effort," he said.
"I think in the end, Mother Nature's going to win."
So far, water supplies are holding up, but officials fear that
with spring and summer approaching and forecasters calling for
continued dry weather, the aquifers that provide most local water
supplies could fall to levels that trigger mandatory water restrictions.
The water level in the Edwards Aquifer - the primary drinking
water source for San Antonio and many others in South-Central
Texas - on Thursday was at 673 feet above sea level, 4 feet above
the historical average level for March. Drought restrictions kick
in when the level drops to 650 feet.
"The more people do now to conserve water, that will help
us put off mandatory restrictions as long as possible," said
Margaret Garcia, spokeswoman for the Edwards Aquifer Authority.
The San Antonio Water System is projecting residents will have
to deal with water restrictions this summer for the first time
since 2000, said Karen Guz, conservation director for the utility.
Drought restrictions were declared in June 2002, but heavy rains
began the next day, leading to major flooding.
"Our worst-case scenario is that it could be April that
we hit 650 feet," Guz said. "What we're really hoping
is that we don't hit it until July."
Under drought restrictions imposed in San Antonio and most cities
in the region, landscape sprinkling would be limited to once a
week on designated days if the level falls to 650 feet.
Some homeowners are philosophical about crunchy lawns and withered
"It's San Antonio and we have droughts," Rich Maley,
42, said as he hosed off the cover of a house fan in the middle
of his brown front lawn. "I've been here 25 years; they come
and they go. You can't sweat the small stuff. Just let it die."
His wife, Liz, 47, disagreed. She plans to follow SAWS guidelines
for watering lawns this spring.
"I'm going to water the grass with the 1 inch that they
say," she said, jostling her husband's arm. "Once a
week and the lawn will be healthier."
"Customers are asking what are their options," said
Peter Garza, assistant manager at Calloway's Nursery in the 3700
block of Broadway.
He advises customers to buy mulch material to keep root systems
cool and buy plants that are drought-tolerant.
May and June typically are the area's two wettest months, but
climatologists say the weather phenomenon known as La Niña
should last at least through June, keeping the southern United
States hotter and drier than normal.
La Niña - Spanish for "little girl" - is a cyclical
cooling of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean off the
coast of South America.
The 10.92 inches of rainfall in San Antonio in the past 11 months
- 35 percent of normal - is the fourth lowest in any 11-month
period since records were kept beginning in 1871, behind only
two stretches between February 1917 and January 1918 and one from
September 1955 to July 1956, according to a review of the records
by the San Antonio Express-News.
"I don't really see any drought busters in the forecast,"
said Monte Oaks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service
office in New Braunfels.
He said there are slight chances of light rain over the weekend,
then a little better chance in mid-week.
"The mild La Niña they're projecting is indicative
of continued below-normal precipitation, so the big concern over
the next few months is if we'll get enough rain," Oaks said.
Staff Writer Vincent T. Davis contributed to this report.
Drought and cold pose extra challenges this year
by Neil Sperry
San Antonio Express-News
I've always wondered what it would be like to garden in an area
where the weather never changed much or, at least, where you could
know what to expect season-by-season. This certainly isn't such
a place! South Texas years are entirely different, one to the
next, and this one is starting out as a textbook example.
Many of the plants we might have thought were just dormant are
probably going to stall in the starting blocks this springtime.
A week or two after their species twins have already broken bud
and started growing, our victim is going to be sitting there bare
and lifeless. The reality will become obvious. Our plant is dead
or dying. The past year's drought will have taken its slow toll.
I drove across hundreds of miles of Texas highways in the tail
end of the drought of 1998-2000 and I saw trees dying that I thought
I'd never see die due to drought. Even if we start getting sustained
rain this season, some of our most-stressed plants may still succumb.
We'll think it was insects or diseases, but drought will often
have been the key.
So, what's a good gardener like you supposed to do? You've probably
already been doing it. You've probably been watering your plants
occasionally and deeply. It's amazing how little water it actually
takes to keep a valuable shade tree or shrub bed alive and healthy.
You don't have to be wasteful. You just need to be alert and ready
But let's say that you have a bed of Indian hawthorns or dwarf
hollies that are browned from the drought. Will they come back?
Probably not. If large areas of your St. Augustine lawn were lost
due to drought, it will be slow to recover. Once those plants
dry to the point of turning brown, it's probably time to replant.
On the other hand, Bermuda grass, Asian jasmine and crape myrtles
seem far more resilient. Watering them may be all that it takes.
A little corrective pruning to reshape and guide them might help,
That's a bit of focus on our ongoing drought. Now let's deal
with this winter's cold. We've seen damage done to plants that
normally don't face that kind of freezer burn here in South Texas.
The farther north into the Hill Country you live, the more likely
it is that damage has been done. By now, most of those plants
are beginning to offer new growth. In some cases, it may be originating
clear down at the ground line. In other cases they may bud out
all along their stems with almost no apparent long-term damage.
You need to decide how serious the cold injury is and prune now
Most of any serious cold damage across South Texas was done earlier
in the winter by our first tastes of harsh weather. Those episodes
were followed by a very warm midwinter, which kept plants from
going totally and completely dormant. Then the usual February
cold gave them a new round of troubles. You may see new growth
that was already starting to emerge that has crisped leaf edges
and tips, and early-flowering trees, shrubs and vines may have
been bitten by the cold, but injuries, for the most part, appear
to be minor. Upcoming favorable spring conditions will quickly
move us past most of our issues with cold.
To this point we've said nothing about feeding any damaged plants.
Too many times people think that a bag of fertilizer will remedy
any kind of cultural shortcoming, but that's not especially true.
When your plants need water or warmth, all the plant food in the
world won't make up for them. If you have plants that are still
alive and trying, and if they have been damaged by drought or
cold, feed them with lighter doses than normal, but step up the
frequency slightly to compensate. Follow each feeding with a deep
watering to carry the nutrients throughout their root systems.
In summary, two simple points: Prudent watering saves plants,
and most plants damaged by the cold will be fine if you tend to
them now and into the spring.