Texans are a rugged bunch and West Texans are exceptionally tough. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), West Texas remains in a state of severe to extreme drought. Counties in North Central Texas are also classified as being in severe drought.
After only a brief visit to the central part of Texas, one may recognize that what many of our fellow Texans call drought is a little different than what we know.
The average rainfall in Tyler is almost 47 inches. In 2012 this picturesque East Texas community received only 34 inches of precipitation.
By contrast, our average precipitation over the Permian Basin is about
14 inches per year. Too frequently, much of our rain comes down as gully washers during the course of just a few hours. This leaves us with large expanses of time between rains. In 2012, we experienced a dry spell of 69 days stretching from October 23rd until just a day shy of the end of the year.
The NOAA reports four different types of drought that have been categorized by climate experts. Meteorological drought is defined as dry weather that dominates a region. By definition, this type of drought is typical in West Texas and has always limited our plant selection.
When horticulturists talk about the drought tolerance of a plant, they are often referring to its ability to withstand short dry spells within its native or naturalized region. For example, the United States Forest Service has described the Willow oak as a drought tolerant tree. The Willow oak can withstand a longer period of what residents in Tyler consider drought than it can on the Southern tip of the Llano Estacado.
Last year, I witnessed the drought related decline of a 60 year old
Willow oak in the front lawn of a residence. It was the largest tree in its neighborhood. The tree was several hundred miles west of its native range — an area that has rarely seen a year with less than 30 inches of rainfall. The oak was surviving on the margin.
Unfortunately, many of our landscapes planted decades ago, are replete with vegetation that made its way here from a climatic region that does not resemble ours. We are sadly watching the loss of many of these plants today.
Great resources are being put into maintaining these plants with the hope that conditions will improve. One thing is certain; this is not our last drought. What can be done? A landscape invested heavily with non-adapted plants today may suffer years from now.
If you have thousands of dollars tied up into a traditional landscape, the decision to convert to a more xeric plant palette can be complex and economically impractical. One solution is to take a small area of your property and make changes incrementally.
This follows the example often set by Universities, hospitals and businesses.
These institutions change their landscapes in phases, over time, as part of a Master Plan. Among other things, these incremental improvements accommodate their budget restrictions.
Private homeowners can make minor attractive changes in a corner or front entrance to their property this year, which may produce a small change on their utility bill. Over time, several small adjustments to the landscape can reap big rewards.
For ideas on changing your landscape over time, contact the Ector County Extension office at 432.498.4071 or email me at email@example.com
Floyd is a horticulturist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service. He can be reached at 498-4071 in Ector County or 686-4700 in Midland County or by email at Jeff.Floyd@ag.tamu.edu