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The "Drought-ocalypse" Continues, Hitting Cattle Ranchers and Rice Farmers (and Us)

There's been a lot of that wet stuff falling from the sky of late, but don't let all the rain fool you: Texas is still in the grips of one hell of a drought, along with most of the Southwest.

In the city, it's easy to look at the rain pelting out of the sky and groan because you've got to walk three more blocks or to growl because you totally left your windows cracked this morning, but it's still one of those terrible-human-being moments to complain about the rain, because the state needs it so badly. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 90 percent of the state is still in drought and 35 percent of the state is in severe drought. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reports things are so bad that 665 public water systems have put water restrictions in place.

Texas is known for oil and cowboy hats, yes, but it's also known for being cattle country -- hence the cowboy outfits. However, the drought has been driving the herd numbers in Texas to record lows this year (and they were already at the record low from the 1960s, when cattle got scarce in the wake of the late 1950s Six-Year Drought). It's also driven the size of the U.S. herd down past the 72-year low that the herd numbers sank to last year, according to Agrimoney.

And the herd numbers will likely keep falling as ranchers sell off their herds. They can't feed their cattle on the grass that isn't growing, so they have to either get the livestock fed using feed, which is expensive, or sell off the livestock, which they have been doing a lot of in the past couple years.

The livestock has been getting sold off, dropping the sizes of the herds and making it more likely that some of the smaller cattle outfits will end up cutting their herds down so much they'll downsize right out of the industry. Maybe it'll all turn around (i.e., the drought will end) and the whole modern ranching thing -- already burdened with plenty of challenges before the drought set in -- will recover, but it feels very possible right now that the day will come when ranching in Texas will be as of-the-past as those John Wayne movies where he plays a Texas rancher. And most of those movies weren't even shot in Texas.  

The other sign of the drought-ocalypse? (Yep, just coined that one.) The rice farmers and their extreme lack of water. You read the words "rice farming" and already feel the yawn coming on, but the rice industry is important to Texas and has been around since the 1800s.

A lot of it is nestled just about an hour away where families have been farming rice along the Lower Colorado River for generations in Wharton County. Decades ago the rice farmers worked out a deal with the Lower Colorado River Authority, allowing the entity to build a damn that would control the flow of water. The rice farmers had way senior water rights, but the LCRA folks assured them those rights would always be respected and they would never stop the water from flowing downriver. Yeah, well, maybe the LCRA folks didn't use the word "never."

Either way, the rice farmers didn't get their water last summer, or the summer before that, and the way the drought is doggedly continuing, it looks like they won't be getting it again. Crop insurance has covered the farmers in the past couple of years, but crop insurance is designed to stop paying out if something like a drought sets in, so the government won't end up paying out insurance on a way of life that is no longer viable. The crop insurance will most likely not get paid out if farmers don't get water to raise a crop again next year. The rice farmers are trying to diversify with less water-intensive crops, according to StateImpact Texas, but it's still a giant mess that will see the smaller outfits -- the ones who need the crop insurance to survive these consecutive bad seasons -- out of the business, unless they really make a go of changing up what they're planting.

As if all this weren't bad enough, the drought has also killed off the fungus that regulates the grasshopper population. Meaning, the crop-chomping creatures are everywhere, eating everything in sight in a way that comes across as nothing short of biblical, according to Agrilife.

Beef is supposed to actually get cheaper in the coming months, but rice and hamburger could be getting a lot more expensive in the coming years. And the grasshoppers are coming. And all because it hasn't really rained enough to, say, pull notoriously humid Houston out of the drought, let alone recharge the Ogallala Aquifer -- bad because the Ogallala supplies most of the water for the High Plains and farmers have been drawing on it more and more, accelerating the aquifer's decline -- or provide water to that town that actually ran out of the stuff and is having to truck water in.

Have you ever noticed how in westerns, water is almost always mentioned as an issue, if it isn't actually *the* issue? It's such a strange thing to realize we are having to eye the same considerations nowadays, when the closest most people will get to a steer is when it appears between a couple of buns on their plate. Water is a major thing and even though we are doing a little better down here on the Gulf Coast, we aren't out of the drought yet. In fact, along with the rest of the state, we're still decidedly in it. Getting rained on or having a soggy car isn't the funnest thing in the world, but no water at all -- that's way worse.


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