USDA Designates Areas Of West And Southwest As Drought Disaster Areas

Lake Buchanan_LCRA
Lake Buchanan is a primary water supply reservoir in Central Texas. Thanks to smart water management, it remains significantly above its time lows despite the drought. Photo by Lower Colorado River Authority/Flickr.

As of early February, 256 counties in the U.S. have been designated as natural disaster areas by the USDA, making many growers eligible for government assistance.

The designation was given to counties across Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah due to drought conditions in 2015.

In California alone, 55 of the state’s 58 counties were designated as primary natural disaster areas due to damages and losses caused by the recent drought. The remaining three counties, as well as contiguous counties in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon, also qualify for natural disaster assistance.

In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that many agricultural water contractors in California may face a second year of receiving no federal water for the state’s Central Valley Project — an unprecedented situation.

Prolonged and widespread drought is putting many water supply systems to the test, such as in Texas, where some reservoir levels are reaching historic lows.

Reservoirs In Parts Of Texas Are Critically Low
According to Dr. Guy Fipps, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension irrigation engineer, reservoir levels are critically low in major cities along the Interstate 35 corridor, from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to San Antonio. Cities in those regions will see water restrictions continue for the foreseeable future.

“If you look at that corridor, it’s pretty dire. Reservoirs are at or near historic levels,” Fipps says.

A report from the Texas Water Development Board said that monitored water supply reservoirs were about 65 percent full as of February 17. Fipps says that number is misleading, because the average is skewed by larger reservoirs in East Texas, such as the Jacksonville Reservoir, which is full.

“In the greenhouse industry, wholesalers in the east are not impacted much this year.”In East Texas, particularly north of Houston, while there are restrictions and shortages, water supplies are generally in better shape.

In areas of the state that are harder hit by the drought, restrictions on ground and surface water are severely impacted.

Smaller greenhouses or retailers who rely on city water supplies have restrictions set by their local provider.

About 1,200 local water suppliers, out of 4,600 total in the state, are under some sort of water restrictions, Fipps says.

Larger operations that depend on surface water either have water rights from the state or a permit or contract for surface water.

During tough times, like now, surfacewater is allocated based on category and seniority. Categories include municipal, industrial and agriculture, and they are ranked as such.

If someone isn’t getting adequate water supply, they will shop around.

“Texas has a very active water market,” Fipps says. “If someone has senior rights, but will only use half of their water this year, they will see if they can sell the remainder.”

Fipps says most people wouldn’t argue with the effectiveness of the priority system, but that “this year, we’re going to find out how well the system works, particularly in the lower Colorado River district. That’s going to be a real test.“

Drought Severely Impacts Lower Colorado River Basin
A February 18 press release from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) shows that the drought conditions along the Highland Lakes are now the most severe the region has experienced since construction of the lakes began in the 1930s.

Data shows the Highland Lakes are now in a critical period, marking the driest conditions on record, worse than the 1947-1957 drought, which had previously been the record holder for the region.

As a result of dry conditions and record-low inflows, the inventory of water LCRA can provide has decreased by about 100,000 acre-feet, to about 500,000 acre-feet per year.

Lakes Travis and Buchanan are the primary water supply reservoirs for many cities in Central Texas. The most water used by firm customers in a single year was about 250,000 acre-feet in 2011, far below the estimated 500,000 acre-feet per year firm yield.

The revised estimate of the firm yield changes the amount of water available for sale in the future, but does not impact existing contracts, such as those held by the City of Austin and other firm customers, the release stated.

However, “Lakes Travis and Buchanan remain significantly above their all-time lows, thanks to smart water management decisions and excellent water saving efforts by our customers throughout the lower Colorado River basin,” says Phil Wilson, general manager of the LCRA.

“LCRA has water available to meet all our existing contracts,” Wilson says. “The good news is the reservoirs are doing what they were designed to do — capture water when it rains and hold it for use during droughts.“

At the same time, LCRA continues to work to expand the region’s water supplies, including building a new reservoir near the Texas coast. Late last year, LCRA broke ground on the Lane City Reservoir in Wharton County. Once complete in 2017, the reservoir will be capable of adding up to 90,000 acre-feet per year to the water supply.

Disaster Designation Opens The Door For Assistance
The 2014 Farm Bill, which was signed into law last year, has paved the way for qualified farmers in drought-affected counties to apply for safety net programs and low interest emergency loans through USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

Farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the date of their county’s disaster area designation to apply for loans to help cover part of their losses.

Each loan application is considered based on the extent of losses, security available and repayment ability. Visit FSA.USDA.gov/farmloans to learn more.

For more information about assistance, visit FSA.USDA.gov./factsheets or contact your local FSA office at Offices.USDA.gov.

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