Veterinarian and farmer Woody Ray was once the largest Angus cattle producer in the state.
Thinning his herd to 10 cattle, Ray said the ongoing drought cycle hit his hay operation hard in 2011 — bringing production losses of at least 25 percent.
Despite holding senior water rights to the Lampasas River, Ray faced having to shut down his pumps as the water table fell. “Production in our area probably was cut off at least 45 percent through 2012 to 2013,” he said. “This year was the same.”
According to reports from the Brazos River Authority, which manages 11 reservoirs in the Brazos River Basin, Belton Lake was 71 percent full and Stillhouse Hollow Lake was 61 percent full during October 2011.
While a moderate recovery has both lakes above 90 percent capacity, parts of Texas — Killeen included — are still suffering from years of continuous drought.
“It used to be that the rocks and shore might show in July or August, but now you see it all the time,” Ray said.
In fact, some areas rest on the precipice of lapsing into “abnormally dry” drought conditions, said Daniel Huckaby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.
Killeen is on the border of moderately and abnormally dry — a stalemate that will become crucial in the next few months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor Map.
“What makes this drought different is that we have basically been in drought continuously for … four years now,” Huckaby said.
State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said Texans are witnessing the second-longest drought on state record; however, less than half of the state is in drought conditions.
“Those remaining drought areas are mainly experiencing long-term drought due to continuous or nearly continuous dry conditions,” said Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station.
The hardest hit areas are in North-Central Texas and parts of the Texas Panhandle and the Hill Country, he said.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the percentage of the state in drought conditions never dropped below 40 percent since the current drought cycle began four years ago.
Southeast Texas is faring best.
“Partly this is because normal rainfall is more than adequate, while in western Texas it takes excessive rainfall to restore reservoir levels,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
From January to September, Killeen had 20.2 inches of rain — slightly below the typical statewide average of 22.68 inches; Texas averaged 19.45 inches in the same period, about 15 percent below average.
An indicator of the ongoing drought is lower lake levels — Belton Lake is down 12 feet while Stillhouse Hollow Lake is down 13.2.
“That’s a significant amount that people would certainly notice if they go out to the lake,” Huckaby said.
To replenish the lakes, Belton Lake needs 41.6 billion gallons — enough water to give every Texan about 348 5-gallon water jugs — while Stillhouse requires 22.7 billion gallons, he said.
Main water source
That much rainfall isn’t likely to come soon, and since the lakes are the main water source for the area’s growing population, cities have conservation plans to encourage residents to be smart about water usage.
“Since Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 is the primary source of water for Copperas Cove, we follow their direction regarding restrictions based on lake levels, (WCID No. 1) treatment plant operations, and county/watershed drought triggers such as drought issues,” said Daryl Uptmore, Copperas Cove’s public works director.
The plans start with voluntary limits on use, such as irrigating lawns only once every five days and taking showers instead of baths, but can incrementally become mandatory when conditions warrant stricter limits on use.
And a water main break in July showed how fragile the system can be. Crews digging near Belton hit a pipe, resulting in the loss of 20 million gallons of water. Killeen, Harker Heights, Fort Hood and Copperas Cove temporarily went into higher levels of their respective water conservation plans, with several areas running almost completely out of water until the break was repaired and tanks were restored.
While most residents were only forced to conserve water for a couple of days in July, area farmers and ranchers continue to feel the effects of the lingering drought, which some have called “the worst in Texas.”
That’s because crops in Central Texas are predominantly dependent upon rainfall instead of irrigation.
“If there is not enough rainfall for hay, then there’s not enough hay for the animals to eat and then the price of meat goes up,” Huckaby said.
Feed hay or sell stock
During the driest year in Central Texas, Brad Reavis, owner of Central Texas Feed and Supply in Killeen, said rising feed prices and a shortage of hay was taking a toll.
“(Ranchers have) two choices,” Reavis said in May 2011. “Either feed hay or sell off stock. It’s pretty bleak right now.”
In August 2011, Lampasas Cattle Auction co-owner and rancher Hilton Hopson said as many as 1,500 to 1,700 head of cattle were coming through the auction.
At the time, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service released a report estimating the economic impact of the drought for Texas livestock reached $1.2 billion between November 2010 and May 2011.
After the peak of the drought in 2011, Lampasas rancher Robert Straley, who was forced to cull his herd and sell about 100 head of cattle, said cash crops like hay also took a hit.
“In a normal year, we’ll bale 30,000 to 35,000 square bales and 2,000 to 3,000 round bales,” Straley said in 2012. “This year, we did 156 round bales, 5,000 to 6,000 square.”
Retired Dr. Dudley Baker decided to convert to grass-fed beef five years ago at his 450-acre ranch between Belton and Salado despite the drought.
Baker’s herd of registered Angus cattle has grown to 100, and rain in the past couple of months helped fill his stock ponds, he said.
The drought slowed down his growth plan, but Baker said his mission of raising healthy cattle was more important.
“The expense of using community water was worth it because I wanted to do this for three reasons — one the health of all people, two humane treatment of animals and third the environment,” he said. “The plants and the animals are working together.”
In an Oct. 23 news release, Nielsen-Gammon said if Texas has a moderately wet winter, drought conditions should continue to improve; however, significant rain would need to be sustained to keep the soil saturated.
Sporatic bursts of rain like what the Killeen area received in September and even as recently as last week are just a drop in the bucket.
“The problem is with the soil moisture being so low, sometimes you get a heavy rain and the ground is hard as a rock still the next day,” Huckaby said. “A lot of that rainfall gets absorbed into the ground and never becomes runoff to actually get to the lakes.”
Even a “mild summer” with dry weather and lower-than-normal temperatures did nothing to alleviate the area, he said. “We didn’t get the heavy rain that we would need to really pull us out of the drought.”
For a lasting improvement, Huckaby said the area needs heavy, sustained rainfall like a “tropical rain” with 3 to 5 inches in a day, which is “much more common along the Gulf Coast.”
Months of heavy rain pulled the area out of drought in 2007 and it would be needed again now.
With weather patterns indicating a reduced chance of rain in the winter, warmer temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean could mean another dry summer in 2015.
If it holds, it would “reduce the amount of rainfall we’ll receive here in Texas” and could mean the drought lasts until 2020, Huckaby said.
“The 1950s drought, which lasted for several years, was in a phase like this where we have cool Pacific and warm Atlantic,” he said.
While Central Texas has water for now, conservation is important for the years ahead.
According to the state’s 2012 water plan, Texas would not have enough water to meet the needs of its residents, businesses and agricultural enterprises if faced with more serious or prolonged droughts.
In a 2011 news release, Clearwater Board President Leland Gersbach stressed the importance of water consumption awareness. “(The) water on your yard today may be the drinking water you need tomorrow.”
“By taking a five-minute shower instead of a bath, you can save 15 gallons of water per shower,” Harker Heights City Manager David Mitchell said. “Or, by using a glass full of water when you brush your teeth instead of letting the water run, you can save three or more gallons per brushing. … Furthermore, if you water your lawn during the early morning hours when there are low temperatures and low winds, the amount of water lost to evaporation is lessened.”
Leaks also can account for 10,000 gallons of water wasted in a home each year and save homeowners more than 10 percent on their water bills if fixed, he said.
Huckaby said the key is to be aware of daily water usage.
“In general, (Texas usually) has barely enough water to meet our needs, and it’s one of those things that once we use it — it’s gone,” Huckaby said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.