Drought Tightens Grip

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State parks with lakes, rivers and ponds are expected to get more and more popular this summer as a drought heats up Texas.

May is usually the wettest month of the year in Texas, but this May was the driest in 108 years. And the past six months have collectively been the 25th driest on record. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and other interested officials recently testified before a state committee and TPWD is reconstituting a team of employees to start tracking and reporting impacts on natural resources and options to conserve water and sustain wildlife in dry times.

The Texas Joint Committee on Water Resources met here to hear invited and public testimony regarding current drought conditions and use of water resources.

Jack Colley from the Division of Emergency Management said the major concerns are wildfires, water supply, agriculture and economic impacts.

Colley told the committee that there have been 1,753 wildfires in Texas this year. Also, 29 counties have instituted burn bans as a result of the drought. Colley said that there are currently 58 drinking water systems under water restrictions statewide. Of those, 44 are under mandatory restrictions and 14 are voluntary.

Though above-normal rainfall recently hit Houston-Galveston, the Big Bend and some areas between San Angelo and Abilene, nearly 50 percent of the state got less than half its normal precipitation in the past 30 days.

And TPWD is watching fish and wildlife carefully.

"When we have a drought, some of the first impacts will occur on fish and wildlife so we've set up a program to monitor it as well as we can," said Larry McKinney, Ph.D, TPWD senior division director and director of resource protection. McKinney testified before the committee.

"Our network is made up of our field biologists, park rangers and law enforcement personnel. They're looking for signs of drought which, for example, would be fish kills due to low oxygen or situations where rivers and waters are closed down because of stagnation or poor water quality," McKinney said.

He says the TPWD group is working closely with the Governor's Texas Drought Preparedness Council that will report to the legislature about the impact of a long-term dry spell on the state.

The drought has already had negative effects on crops. According to Texas Cooperative Extension reports, there has already been $110 million in wheat losses statewide and officials are expecting a total of $316 million in crop losses by June 10.

Droughts can affect wildlife both in the field and around homes, which is why TPWD officials stress the importance of using native plants in landscapes.

"Native plants are ideally suited for rigors of Texas weather. While drought does affect all plants, native plants require much less care in the summer. That in turn is what benefits native wildlife. Native plants continue to thrive and produce food and shelter for wild animals even in extreme conditions," said John Herron, head of the wildlife diversity branch at TPWD.

For more information on helping sustain wildlife by planting vegetation, visit this site.

Meanwhile, TPWD officials are gearing up for an anticipated upsurge in park attendance.

"When it gets hot people are going to want to be around water and we have a lot of good parks that still have adequate water...and in many parts of the state they may be the only place that has water," McKinney said.