As a crippling drought continues to weigh down on Oklahoma, some rural residents are finding themselves in a difficult position — their wells have run dry.
The situation is particularly critical for farmers and ranchers, who, in some cases, are left without a way to irrigate their crops and keep their livestock watered.
But the problem isn't limited to farmers who irrigate using water wells. Farmers who normally irrigate from Lake Altus-Lugert in the southwestern part of the state weren't allowed to pull water from the reservoir this year because of low lake levels.
Brian Vance, spokesman for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said the agency has received several reports of wells running dry, particularly in the western part of the state. The agency doesn't keep comprehensive data on how many wells have run dry, he said.
When Oklahoma sees an extended period of drought, Vance said, it's relatively common for residents in rural areas and smaller communities to see their wells run dry. The problem tends to be the worst in western Oklahoma, he said.
Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese said the situation facing Oklahoma's farmers is worse than usual but isn't yet as dire as last year, when the state saw 14 consecutive months of drought conditions.
Particularly in southwest Oklahoma, farmers who use water wells may be at an advantage over those who draw their water from Lake Altus-Lugert because they are able to irrigate until those wells run dry. But that advantage only lasts so long, Reese said.
“They go as far as they can,” he said. “But when they run out, they run out.”
Crops are stunted
Early rains were enough to allow cotton crops to grow in some cases, Reese said, but once they came up, they didn't receive enough water to produce.
“In many cases, the cotton just died,” he said.
That's been the case for Joe Kelly, a cotton farmer near Altus. Kelly normally gets his water from Lake Altus-Lugert, but earlier this year, he was told he wouldn't be able to irrigate from the reservoir. Since then, he said, he's been at the mercy of the elements.
The combination of temperatures of 110 degrees or above and very little rain have stunted Kelly's cotton crop, he said. He received about an inch of rain in early July, he said. But cotton needs about a quarter of an inch of water per day.
“That didn't last long,” he said.
At this point, he said, his fields are covered in plants with small bolls of cotton, about the size of a pecan. When the yield is that small, he said, he'd lose money if he tried to harvest it. Instead, Kelly plans to wait and see what his crop insurance will pay.
This late in the season, he said, even hoping for rain doesn't do any good.
“If we get a rain right now, it won't do us any good,” he said. “Everybody down here is in a pretty tight situation.”
The problem of wells running dry extends to other parts of the country as well. A higher-than-normal number of dead wells have been reported across a swath of states ranging from Nebraska to Indiana and Wisconsin to Missouri.
While wells running dry near the end of a hot summer are not unusual, some in drought stricken areas have reported their wells running out as early as June.
Contributing: The Associated Press