As a result, the nine major and 21 minor aquifers that supply about 60 percent of the state's water supply are declining at alarming rates, groundwater officials say.
"There are cumulative effects because of the drought," he says. "Aquifers aren't recharging as quickly. Because of growth, there is more competition for a dwindling resource. And during a drought, they're pumping more water."
Bob Patterson, president of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which covers Parker, Montague, Wise and Hood counties, said the drought has caused aquifer levels to dip 20 feet in many areas and 50 feet or so in places.
The drop has been even deeper in parts of the Blanco-Pedernales Groundwater Conservation District in Central Texas, general manager Ron Fieseler says.
The decline in aquifers is happening statewide, said Jim Conkwright, president of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts and general manager of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, based in Lubbock. "I think anyone that has a water well is seeing a decline this summer," he notes.
"It's worse than the drought we had in the 1950s.
"It's off the charts," Lange says. Stringent watering restrictions are in place at the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District in Kendall County, northwest of San Antonio, General Manager Micah Voulgaris said.
"When the cedar trees are dying, you know it's dry," he said. "People are learning to adjust. Rainwater systems have caught on. But you need rain for that to work," he says. "It's pretty bad when people are praying for a hurricane."
The price of alfalfa, the most common hay variety, surged 51% in the past year, reaching a record $186 a short ton in May, government data show. Hay and grass make up about half of what cattle eat over their lifetimes, so parched pastures are forcing ranchers to find alternative sources of feed, pushing some spot-market corn to the highest ever.
Farmers in Oklahoma and in Texas, the biggest producer of hay and cattle, may harvest only one crop from alfalfa and Bermuda grass this year, compared with three normally, said Larry Redmon, a state forage specialist at Texas A&M University. Cattle that usually graze on fields through September or October are instead being sold to feedlots, where they are confined in pens and eat mostly corn.
The drought, which is the worst ever in Texas, is compounding a hay shortage caused by farmers shifting this year to more profitable crops, including corn. The U.S. may harvest 57.605 million acres of hay in 2011, the least on records going back to 1909, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Corn was sown on 92.282 million acres, the second-most since 1944.
Record Hay Prices
Alfalfa traded at a national average of $180 a ton in June, compared with $119 a year earlier, according to USDA figures. For the year, the average may be more than $165, topping the previous annual peak in 2008, according to economists at the Denver-based Livestock Marketing Information Center, a forecaster since 1955.
Rising feed costs are prompting a reduction in cattle herds and eroding profit for milk producers. The USDA yesterday forecast retail-meat prices may increase this year as much as 7% and dairy products may jump 6%, more than the rate of overall food inflation at 3% to 4%.
“All feed costs are high,” McCullock says. “Rising alfalfa prices will hit dairy farmers’ profitability fairly quickly, and this will lead to increased culling.”
In June, the U.S. cow herd was the highest in two years, USDA data shows.
The drought has also ignited a record wildfire season. The Texas Forest Service says 15,188 wildfires have burned a record 3,327,484 acres since Nov. 15. More than 2,200 structures, including 591 homes, have burned. Wildfires are ravaging the tinder dry landscape, scorching more than two million acres since January. To make matters worse, this is typically the Texas rainy season.
In Texas, wildfires have burned about 3.3 million acres this year, said Holly Huffman, a spokeswoman for the state Forest Service. October through June was the driest nine-month period ever in Texas, and rainfall totals in July look to extend the record into a 10th month, State Climatologist John Nielsen- Gammon said in an interview from College Station.