As a drought continues its grip on the state, a legislative committee approved two bills Monday intended primarily to help farmers and ranchers, along with rural firefighters, who are struggling with dry conditions.
House Bill 1923 would allocate $10 million in the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1, for drought relief. The measure calls for forming the Emergency Drought Relief Fund and placing the money in it. Rep. Dale DeWitt, R-Braman, said money in the fund would be accessed only by state agencies that are qualified to provide drought relief after the governor declared a drought emergency.
“We're faced with severe drought across the state,” DeWitt, a farmer, told members of the House of Representatives Natural Resources and Regulatory Services Committee.
Committee members voted 8-0 without debate to pass HB 1923. The committee also without debate voted 8-0 to pass HB 1827, a similar measure proposed by Rep. Don Armes.
Armes, R-Faxon, said his measure also would create an emergency drought protection special fund, which would be handled by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. The fund would be activated when the governor declares a drought emergency.
Armes, a farmer, said money from the fund could be used for projects, such as cleaning ponds, building ponds, water conservation methods in agriculture, water for livestock, rural fire suppression, getting rid of Eastern red cedar trees and other drought-relief activities identified by the governor.
“We don't know where we're going with this drought, but it's a pretty tough one,” he said.
Both measures now advance to the full House. It's possible both measures could be combined into one bill, Armes and DeWitt said.
“We're trying to figure out a way to get some funding to rural Oklahoma for access to water,” said Armes, the committee chairman. “If a guy's trying to water cattle and doesn't have a well, maybe we can give him a grant to drill a well; maybe we can help with fuel costs on water hauling; maybe if a municipality is about to run out of water, we may be able to help them with drilling a well.”
Gov. Mary Fallin, who in her State of the State message to lawmakers announced that work was under way to review and rewrite the state's drought management plan, is willing to work with the Legislature to accomplish that goal, her press secretary, Aaron Cooper, said Monday.
Since October 2010, the statewide average precipitation is more than 2 feet below normal.
“This drought goes on another year, we've got some serious problems,” Armes said. “We've already got very serious problems.”
Armes said ranchers in his area of southern Oklahoma are moving cattle to places that have water or are hauling water to their livestock.
“A lot of places a guy might have a little bit of grass and have some grazing, but he doesn't have any water,” he said. “There are a lot of pickups with tanks in the back of them right now and a lot of trailers with tanks on the back that are just hauling water. And that gets extremely expensive, and it's not so much the cost of the water; it's the cost of the fuel hauling a very heavy load every single day.”
DeWitt said his area of northern Oklahoma usually fares well with precipitation, but the drought the past two years is taking its toll on crops, grasslands and ponds.
“Producers up there have eliminated half their cattle herds,” he said. “Very little water for livestock up in our area. The ponds have dried up. We have not had rain to fill those ponds. The grass situation is terrible; the hay situation is terrible.”
Kay County is a large wheat-producing area, but the winter wheat crop does not look good, he said.
“Surprisingly, there are pockets that look pretty decent, but then there are other areas that the wheat is really suffering,” DeWitt said. “It is stressed to the point that I'm not sure it will recover.”