Texas’ Record Drought Stressing Its Green Industry

Weather has been extreme around much of the United States. But Texas would likely win a state-to-state game of one-upmanship. The year began with record freezes and ice storms. That was followed by an unseasonably dry spring, which quickly turned into a searing summer that had Texans measuring the number of days over 105 degrees instead of the usual measure of over-100 days.

Those late-winter ice storms turned out to be the main precipitation for the year. Every storm system that has approached Texas has dried up just shy of the border or swerved away like recent Tropical Storm Lee. Lee sent rain up to the edge of Louisiana’s border with Texas, but turned back to the rest of the Southeast.

Texas has been in what the U.S. Drought Monitor deems an Extreme Drought. Even a quick look at the Drought Monitors’ map in early September shows Texas’ dilemma. The extreme drought region, which is a gloomy dark brown on the map, seems to follow the Texas border, although the drought’s panhandle takes in about half of Oklahoma. The drought has resulted in hundreds of fires that have burned more than 3.5 million acres so far in 2011, many of the worst making news over Labor Day weekend.

The Houston Chronicle printed an article in late August predicting that more than 60 million trees would die as a result of the drought in the next two years in the Houston region alone.

How Are Texas Garden Centers Faring?

The Texas green industry has taken a hit, but not as hard as the industries in Colorado and Georgia did in recent years. Georgia had a statewide watering ban on landscaping, which in the end drove more than 25 percent of its growers out of business and shuttered many garden centers. In Colorado, the broadcast news began airing footage of garden retailers watering their stock during its drought, creating a highly hostile atmosphere for garden centers.

Texas has had several advantages. First, although spring was dry, its mild weather attracted consumers, leading to strong sales. “Early spring was record breaking,” says Merrideth Jiles, general manager of The Great Outdoors in Austin.

That assessment was widely reported from stores around Texas, with the exception of Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg. Wildseed Farms is a tourist-driven business in spring, when the region’s wildflowers blanket the landscape. Owner John Thomas says there has been very little rain since September 2010, which led to very few wildflowers this year. “It’s like Vermont not having fall color in October,” Thomas says.

Another advantage is that the state’s various water boards are accustomed to drought and many have graduated water restrictions, most of them voluntary. Also, unlike Colorado, so far the Texas media has turned to growers and retailers for perspectives, not profiling them as water-hogging monsters.

That doesn’t mean the danger doesn’t exist. Dallas Morning News Garden Editor Mariana Greene reports that a local news station has begun stories on the biggest residential water users, with local billionaires getting the bad-guy treatment.

“They’ve never done that kind of story in previous droughts. So, for this one station, at least, they are playing it as a moral failure by using so much water,” Greene says.

After the first surge in March and early April, the dry and hot weather bit deep into retail sales. Houston-based Buchanan’s Native Plants saw May sales plummet almost 30 percent compared with 2010, while one San Antonio garden center watched its sales drop almost 40 percent.

Most retailers interviewed for this story say that while July was the hottest on record, sales recovered somewhat before dropping again in August. Buchanan’s sales were up 3 percent, while The Great Outdoors were down 3 percent.

“I’m not really sure why July wasn’t worse,” Jiles said. “It was just as hot – no big sales or anything. Until August rolled around, this July was the hottest month ever in Austin, ever.”

Texas Growers Feel The Effects Even More Than Retailers

If retail sales come to a halt, the loss of sales trickles back to suppliers. So how are they weathering the drought?

With difficulty, growers tell us.

P.J. Ellison of Ellisons Greenhouses in Brenham reports that sales are much lower than normal, creating some panic among her peers.

One nursery based in San Antonio says that his retail orders have dropped, but not as much as the orders for landscaping or rewholesale have. A bigger issue for the grower, Mortellaro Nursery, is water.

“We have had to cut our pumping by 30 percent so far,” says James Harden Jr., vice president of operations and sales at Mortellaro. “This has resulted in our purchasing over 40 acre-feet of water so far this year with an anticipated purchase of 30 to 40 acre-feet more in order to stay under the pumping cap this year. If we hit Stage 3 – it will be within a week or so – we will need to cut pumping by 35 percent. And if we hit Stage 4 we’ll need to cut pumping by 40 percent.”

Even at $600 per acre-foot, cost is only one issue, Harden says. Another is difference between their own pumped water and the purchased water.

“It has different pH and other characteristics,” he says. “As a result, we are not able to adjust pH and other factors as well with the blended water. The purchased water is also causing algae problems that require more work filtering the water. All of this increases daily labor and material costs.”

Ironically, Harden’s efforts to conserve water have led to government headaches.

“Last week we were visited by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for dust issues,” he says. “This is something that will become more of a problem in the future. We are required to waste water on the roads to control dust. This is water, a truck and a driver that could be used caring for plants, but instead must be wasted on gravel roads. Dust regulations are something the EPA is starting to look into implementing."

The Need To Save Water May Create Future Supply Shortages

Retailers are eternally optimistic. Every retailer interviewed says that a couple of rain events will turn matters around. Buchanan’s comment is representative: “I am sure once it rains we will be back on track. Maybe even finish even with last year (which was phenomenal!). Everyone will need to replace plants this fall and next spring.”

Yet, she and the others may find fewer plants are available. While not all growers have been formally restricted in their water use, they are still cutting back voluntarily.

“I have no legal restrictions since I have my own well and live outside of a municipal area,” says Cynthia Meredith of The Herb Cottage, a small grower in Hallettsville, a rural community about halfway between Houston and San Antonio. “But I worry about my well and have let a couple of beds die out so I don’t have to water them, thus saving the available water for my sales crops.”

Mortellaro has dumped plants it felt would be too expensive to grow and cut back on other crops. It has also packed containers close together to ensure that water goes into the pots and not the gravel beds. "This will limit fall sales if we get rain because crops will not be available to sell," Harden says.

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One comment on “Texas’ Record Drought Stressing Its Green Industry

  1. If this drought proves to be a 8-10 year event as it was in the 1950’s here in Texas all bets are off in our Nursery business. Consumers we talk to are worn out trying to water in their yards complying with water restrictions and long tern weather predictions are that we may not get any significant rain for many more months. Fall sales? What Fall? It’s still near 100F here every day just as it has been for months. Even cacti hate this weather! :)

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