Drought impacting lake levels, agriculture

Reporter: Ellie Mahan

October 13, 2022

Although summer rain has helped mitigate extreme drought conditions in the county, all of Hill County is in a moderate drought, and more than half of the county is in a severe drought, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. The dry conditions have caused Lake Whitney’s water levels to drop more than seven feet below normal, and the drought has also brought difficulties to farmers and ranchers countywide.

As of Friday, October 7, Lake Whitney’s water level was at 525.67′. That is 7.33 feet below the normal level of 533′. John Thibodeaux, lead ranger with the Corps of Engineers, reported that the lake level dropped over the summer, increased slightly from rainfall, and then has remained relatively steady since the last rainfall.

One Lake Whitney boat ramp is closed, Lofers Bend Park Boat Ramp. Thibodeaux said that lakegoers can carry on with their normal recreational and fishing activities, but they should proceed with caution and be cognizant of debris that could resurface due to the low lake levels.

The lead ranger said, “With our lake being almost eight feet low, any sort of debris that has been eight feet under water may now be either right at the surface or exposed. The lake could be different from the last time somebody was on it, so we want to heavily remind people to bring their life jackets; practice safe boating practices; don’t drink and boat; and slow down.”

The dry conditions alter not just the lake but also the land throughout the county. A moderate drought can trigger stunted dryland crops, early cattle sales and increased wildfire frequency. Severe drought, which is the category 52.97% of Hill County is in, can lead to poor pasture conditions, a decrease in crop yields and severe wildfire danger.

At the end of August, Hill County Extension Agent Zach Davis said, “From a livestock perspective, we’ve seen a reduced production in forage, specifically hay and grazing forage. That has required folks to go out and purchase excess hay that typically they would make on their own.”

Near the start of September, 76% of the state was in a drought, so some farmers struggled to purchase hay locally at a feasible price. Davis said, “When it is so widespread, it is really problematic. We’ve been having to bring hay in from other states.” An additional recent challenge for those in the agriculture industry has been an elevated price of fertilizer and crop protection products.

Another potential impact the drought can have on ranchers is that it can diminish the water sources of their cattle. Davis said, “Most guys rely on surface water or pond water to water their cattle. When we don’t have that rain, we don’t have anything that runs off into those spots. We’ve seen tanks go really low. Some even go dry. When that happens, we have concerns of cattle trying to access those lower ponds and then getting bogged down in mud, which can be detrimental to them.”

Davis said that many farmers in Hill County have seen reduced yields in crops this year, including corn, wheat and cotton.

In addition to the drought, the excessive heat the county experienced over the summer caused the crops to mature faster than ideal. Crops have optimal temperatures for growth. Corn, for example, shows a negative response to temperatures above 86 degrees fahrenheit. Extreme heat increases the amount of water that corn requires. A temperature increase from 85 degrees to 95 degrees causes corn’s water demand to double.

Davis said, “We saw reduced yields in wheat due to the lack of rainfall. We saw insect pressure, specifically Hessian Flies. That caused reduced yields in wheat that we typically don’t deal with to this degree as far north as we are.” He added that the dryness and the mild winter may have also contributed to the decreased production of wheat.

Davis said, “Farmers are probably the most resilient population that I’ve ever met and had the opportunity to work with. There is always hope for a brighter today and tomorrow.” He stated that the county was very fortunate to receive August rain, and he saw pastures begin to gain color again after the rainfall. He continued, “From a crop side, it gives us hope as we move into the fall and get ready to plant wheat, oats and small grains.”

For more information about current drought conditions in Hill County, visit http://www.drought.gov/states/texas/county/hill.

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