Life is tough when “severe” is an improvement.
But that's the case for some areas of Oklahoma including the community of Eldorado, whose drought situation has been upgraded from the extreme to severe drought category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday.
The drought categories from best situation to worst are: moderate drought, severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought.
Overall, one-fourth of the state remains in some form of drought. That compares to last week when almost half of the state was in a drought. At the start of the year, 78.76 percent of Oklahoma was in a drought.
In central Oklahoma, rainfall for the year was 2.02 inches above average going into Thursday. Oklahoma County dropped out of the drought categories last week with a rating of abnormally dry, and in this week's report the county was in neither the dry nor drought categories.
However, some areas continue to suffer from an extreme lack of precipitation. For example, parts of Texas and Cimarron counties in the Panhandle have only had about 10 to 11 inches in the past 19 months, said Gary McManus, associate state climatologist of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.
The Panhandle is still in the severe-to-exceptional drought categories.
“The rains that we received from this latest event have continued the momentum for drought relief started in October 2011,” McManus said.
“Obviously the 4 to 10 inches that fell across much of eastern Oklahoma put the final nail in the coffin for their drought impacts. Other areas of the state, such as central through portions of northwestern Oklahoma, received the final nudge they needed to end both their short- and long-term drought impacts.
“This drought can now be filed in the history books for much of the state, but those areas in far western Oklahoma and the Panhandle still need more. Long-term impacts, such as ground and surface water depletion, still require precipitation for relief.”
Reasons for hope
Although Eldorado is in a severe drought, Barney Trammell, manager of the Eldorado Co-op in Jackson County, said he is thankful for the rains the community has received.
Some of their neighbors in Jackson and Tillman counties remain in an extreme drought.
Trammell, who has worked at the co-op for 37 years, said the wheat is looking good. He added that the area has had two decent rains recently, including about 2 inches this week. Now he's just hoping and praying there isn't a late freeze or hailstorms or anything else that might damage a crop that is very much needed for many reasons. He's also praying that rains continue to come this year.
The Eldorado Co-op offers one of the shuttle train services in southwest Oklahoma. Trammell explained the Eldorado service by saying they have a 123-car shuttle train with a circle track. Trucks will bring grain into the co-op. It is loaded to the trains and shipped to places such as the Gulf Coast, East Coast or California.
He said that in 2010, the first year of the Eldorado Co-op shuttle train, they moved 8.5 million bushels of wheat. That was wheat taken in throughout the year. But with the drought, that total dropped to 1.4 million bushels last year.
“One of the things it's done is that now we're handling some wheat from 110 miles to the south of us,” said Trammell, who started working on the shuttle train project in 1998.
An important year
This is where Trammell has lived 55 years. This is where he learned to drive tractors and pickups and where he played for the Eldorado High Panthers. It's where he and his wife, Loretta, raised their family.
A tough harvest makes it tough on the community he loves. During a good harvest, he'd hire 14 to 15 extra employees for about three to four weeks. Last year with the drought, he hired no extra help.
A small harvest means many things to many people, such as producers, and it affects agricultural business including harvest crews. It means less fuel sold, less food bought, and so on.
“Anytime that you have a large crop it helps the economy quite a bit, the restaurants and the filling stations” he said.
Wheat isn't the only thing that has suffered during this drought. Cotton production suffered greatly. And some producers had to sell cattle and/or buy hay. A good year will not solve everything. The effects will be long-lasting. But Trammell believes a good crop could definitely help.
“Last year at this time it looked like the desert,” he said. “There was no green grass in the ditches or anything. This year the wheat looks good, and everything is turning green. It's totally different.”
David Barnes, director of Oklahoma County's emergency management office, said he believes the recent rains have significantly improved potential fire conditions in central Oklahoma, “as we were very close to an extremely dangerous situation.”
Barnes said his area is not completely relieved of any hazard as there is still a great deal of fuel for fires available, and the normal winds will likely return soon. But, he said, things are beginning to “green up,” which will help a great deal.
“Some longer-term implications include a much-needed boost to the water table in our area,” Barnes said. “Many people fail to recognize the importance of this issue, looking only to surface water or periodic rainfall that helps for the short-term. While we have been receiving periodic moisture, the water table was still significantly low, which translates into a much greater problem in the long term.”
McManus said the latest climate outlooks for the April to June period are uncertain, but he added, “I really do think the momentum for more moisture, and relief, will continue through spring.”
“La Nina is fading away, and we've already seen quite a few wet systems come through,” McManus said.
“Hope is still there that some of those big rains will spread to the southwest and Panhandle.”