The Woodward News

February 23, 2014

Drought reaches disaster status in Dewey County

Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — No one has to tell area farmers and ranchers that there is a drought on.

Nevertheless, on Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture issued the official word that Dewey County has been declared a disaster area as a result of a protracted and prolonged dry spell.

 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, designated the county as a primary disaster area as of Feb. 4, 2014 due to losses caused by continuing emergency drought conditions.

As a result of that, agriculture producers in Dewey County and the neighboring Woodward and Ellis counties are now eligible for low interest loans through the Farm Service Agency (FSA).  For more information regarding eligibility, contact your local FSA office.  The Woodward County FSA Service Center can be reached by phone at (580) 256-7882.

According to Woodward hay and cattle rancher, Claire Craighead, the loans would be to help producers pay bills and make up a little for the loss of production. But Craighead adds a note of warning “don’t forget, the loans are still loans and have to be paid back.”

Craighead believes the entire northwest portion of the state and the Panhandle should actually be declared a disaster.

“I am thankful for the recent snow because it was a good, heavy wet snow, but it wasn’t near enough, not even close to being able to break this drought,” he said.

Craighead, like any producer who works with the basic elements daily witnessed some alarming evidence recently of just how bad the drought has been and how it is impacting not only the surface need for crops but also the ground water needed by everyone here to survive.

“I have an irrigation pump and I test the static water level every year,” he said. “That static water level, from surface to water, was and always has been, for 39 years, about 41 to 42 feet. This year, I checked it when we ran a new irrigation pump and it was, from surface to water, 49 feet.”

He said this was from a pump that's tied to the Ogallala - the regional aquifer which serves  Eastern Colorado, Western Nebraska, Western Kansas, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and Northwestern Oklahoma.  

“Now that’s a lot, lot, lot of missing water," Craighead said.

Like many producers, Craighead has responded to the drought by reducing his cow herd, he said by about 37 percent, to protect his pastures from overgrazing.

He said this drop in American cattle production will begin to have an impact on national food supplies.

“I do not know what Americans are going to do other than begin to depend more on foreign food production and they do not have the standards in place that American producers have," he said.


Weather experts say the conditions causing the current drought could continue for a while.

Oklahoma Climatologist Gary McManus explained that weather patterns are a result of the natural changing or “oscillation” of ocean temperatures at the tip of South America.

Those changes usually follow a “decadal” pattern, that is, they last about 2 to 3 decades, McManus said. This is called Pacific Decadal Oscillation or PDO.

There are two different types of PDO, he said. One involves warm ocean temperatures, also known as El Niño and the other involves cooler ocean temperatures, also known as La Niña.

So for instance, during the drought here in the 1950s and the fairly dry pattern that followed until about 1975, the ocean down in South America was going through a cooler phase, McManus said. When that happens, it causes warmer and drier weather to dominate here, he said.  

“Then, from 1975 through about 1995 or 1998, we had that wonderful wet phase where we had more rain,” McManus said.

That means ocean temperatures in that 20 or so year span between 1975 to 1998  in South America were warmer. So that created, for the Western half of the US, cooler and wetter weather, he said. That is called El Niño.

So McManus believes sometime around 1995 to 1998, the PDO changed back, as it naturally does, to a La Niña cycle.

What’s that mean for us?

“It could mean we have another decade or so to go before the overall pattern changes,” he said.

That doesn’t mean that every single year will be a drought though, McManus said.

“There will be some rainy years; it just means when you look at it over time you see that there were more dry years than rainy years during that phase,” he said. “And when there are dry years, they are pretty nasty.”

Some good news, McManus said as far as he can see, there is still a fair chance the spring will bring some much needed rain. His climate model is what he called “neutral” at the moment, meaning ocean temps are a little cool but not so cool that it qualifies as a full on La Niña.

“Right now, it is really hard to predict but we do see signs of an El Niño building, which could bring wetter weather in the late summer and possibly into fall,” he said.