It is unlikely a wheat producer living in rural Oklahoma and an accountant comfortably settled in one of the state’s urban centers will view drought in the same way.
More to the point, drought is in the eye of the beholder.
“If you’re a rancher or farmer it can be something that damages your crops or pasture or makes your farm pond go dry or low,” said Gary McManus, state climatologist for the Oklahoma Mesonet. “If you’re a lake manager or water manager for a city, it’s something that can drain your lake or cause it to not fill up when you really need that recharge If you’re a tourism director, it can cause people not to come to your state.”
Every segment of the population will feel the effects of an extended period of no precipitation, and despite harboring vastly different perspectives on the potentially devastating natural phenomenon known as drought, the best chance of successfully managing its effects lies in a concerted all-hands-on-deck approach.
“We’re all in this,” said Saleh Taghvaeian, assistant professor and Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension specialist in water resources. “The drought impacts all of us – agriculture, urban populations, industry – so we have to take all the measures we can to be ready and prepared for the next drought.”
To be clear, the stakes are serious. Water is not the limitless natural resource it appears to be when a faucet, sprinkler or irrigation system is turned on. As evidence, consider Taghvaeian’s recent research on previous droughts in Oklahoma and their impact on irrigated agriculture.
Part of the findings indicate that over the past 15 years in the Oklahoma Panhandle, where producers rely on the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation, the aquifer’s water levels have dropped about 18 feet on average. However, 60 percent of that decline occurred during four years of the most recent drought from 2011 to 2015.
“In parts of the state that have access to groundwater they can pump during drought, it’s usually a more rapid decline of water resources during drought years,” Taghvaeian said. “It’ll impact the future of that water resource and its availability in that region.”
Particularly in the case of groundwater resources, which are harder to quantify because they are below the surface, Taghvaeian said people should think of it like a savings account.
“During drought years, you’re paying out of your savings account and you’re paying much more than the amount of money going into the savings account,” he said. “Maintaining a negative balance and spending a whole lot of money rapidly is something people should keep in mind when they think of drought.”
Frankly, it might seem silly to be talking about drought when spring hasn’t officially arrived and summer, with its scorching triple-digit temperatures, is still several weeks away. Not to mention, the state has been the gracious recipient of a couple soaking rains in the past few weeks.
However, drought is always a possibility in Oklahoma. In fact, the most recent Oklahoma U.S. Drought Monitor map for Oklahoma, dated March 7, was a kaleidoscope of colors indicating the presence of drought in varying intensities, including a couple pockets of extreme drought, across a majority of state.
Of course, none of this means a full on drought is imminent, but it is a good reminder of the dire possibility. Or, as third generation producer Jimmy Wayne Kinder calls it, a fact of life.
“One of the things you need to know about drought in southern Oklahoma is it’s a natural phenomenon. We’ve historically had it,” said Kinder, who raises livestock as well as a wide variety of crops, including wheat, sesame, grain sorghum and canola, as part of a large operation in Walters, Oklahoma. “You learn that’s just part of nature. That’s just where we live.”
Having followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, who also were successful producers, Kinder has seen his share of droughts. As a result of those experiences, there are some management techniques the operation deploys to help during times of drought. For instance, there is an emphasis on raising drought tolerant crops and no inputs are applied before it is certain there will be a crop.
Drought also has taught him to be conservative in a number of ways, including freely spending money, taking risks and introducing lots of new crops.
However, the advent and evolution of long-range weather forecasting has been critical in helping Kinder manage the operation, including during times of drought.
As evidence, he noted one of his canola fields had been fertilized three days before a recent late February rain.
“I wouldn’t have known that except we had good forecasting letting me know there was a good chance of rain coming. That’s some of the economic and technological benefits we have today that previous generations didn’t have,” he said. “I don’t think the farmers in the 40s or the ones who went through the Dust Bowl knew it was going to rain until the clouds came up.”
The longtime producer uses the forecasts to make economic and planning decisions. For instance, Kinder has a good idea of his crop rotations a year in advance and the long-range weather forecasts play a role in those determinations.
“I look at those long-range forecasts and if I see it’s going be a wet summer, then I’ll probably plant more summer crops and if they’re talking about a dry summer, I’m probably not going to plant it,” he said.
For others who live and work outside agriculture circles, drought obviously takes on a very different meaning.
“Generally, they don’t feel the impact immediately like a farmer or water manager might,” said McManus. “When they do start to feel it, it will be through things like wildfires, wildfire dangers, especially those that occur at urban/rural interfaces, as a lot of these suburban neighborhoods are right up against wheat fields.”
Consumers may experience the pain of drought in their wallets in the form of increased prices for staples such as milk, beef and wheat products like bread.
Just as everyone will feel the sting of drought, there is a role for everyone in terms of preparing for and managing through it.
For urban populations that may mean keeping a tidy yard to reduce the fire hazards around the home or turning off the faucet while brushing teeth or being smart about watering the lawn.
For producers, it may mean commissioning an irrigation audit to see where the system is losing water and exploring steps to prevent that waste. Or it could mean pursuing new sensor technologies or advancements in irrigation systems.
The good news is Taghvaeian is seeing an uptick in the interest from those both outside and inside the agriculture industry in terms how to be the best stewards of limited natural resources.
“It’s good to see all that interest from our citizens and stakeholders to conserve these natural resources,” he said. “Our producers are well aware of the value of our natural resources. They’re always trying to conserve these resources and use them in the best way possible.”