IMAGE: CRACKED EARTH AT OKLAHOMA LAKE
Brandi Simons  /  AP
The waterline at Lake Eufaula in southeastern Oklahoma has receded a football field's length, leaving a ring of cracked earth. No other region in the country has seen a greater drop-off in rainfall than southeastern Oklahoma, which received nearly 23 inches less than usual last year.
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updated 1/17/2006 11:52:58 AM ET 2006-01-17T16:52:58

Bill Lawson’s thirsty pastures crunch underfoot, just like the dried mud in the dead and dying farm ponds that stopped sustaining his cattle weeks ago.

His herd follows his pickup truck, mooing for feed because the wheat they usually graze on failed to come up. Fields that should be 6-inch-high seas of shamrock green sit yellowed and dusty, feeding only the black crows that swoop down to steal the unsprouted seed.

The Oklahoma rancher moves his herd from shrinking puddle to shrinking pond, fearing grass fires, hoping for rain and knowing that 50 years of farming will end if it doesn’t come in significant amounts.

“Weeks go by and you get nothing. And then months go by, and you get nothing,” the 72-year-old said. “And then you get to wondering if it’s ever going to rain.”

The drought that has gripped parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri since last summer has left some areas more than 20 inches behind in annual rainfall. 2005 was the ninth-driest year on record in Oklahoma. Some parts of Texas are going through their worst drought in 50 years.

No other region in the country has seen a greater drop-off in rainfall than southeastern Oklahoma, which received nearly 23 inches less than usual last year, the Oklahoma Climatological Survey reports. The entire state ended the year with nearly a 10-inch shortfall.

The state’s largest lake, Lake Eufaula, has dropped 6 feet below normal, receding so far from its banks that a boat ramp ends in cracked earth, the water still a football field-length away. Nearby, Lake Tenkiller is 12 feet below normal.

Homes crack
Even urban Oklahomans hear drought rattling in the dry grass, smell it in the smoke drifting from wildfires that have claimed more than 400,000 acres and two lives, and feel it in the bone-dry winds that fan the flames. Some see it in their homes, where cracks in the ceilings and walls may testify to shrinking in the moisture-sapped soil.

Drought’s bitter taste may linger for years for those who count on the land for their livelihoods.

Oklahoma’s wheat crop — which was valued at $543 million in 2004 — could largely be lost if spring rains do not help make up for a dry fall and winter, state Agriculture Secretary Terry Peach said.

Southeastern Oklahoma’s commercial timber, which drives a $1 billion industry, is showing signs of stress, he said. And ranchers who contribute to the nearly $2 billion cattle industry are selling off herds they cannot afford to water and feed.

“Usually cow operators will select about 10 percent of their animals (to sell) each year,” Peach said. “But this year, we’re seeing people having to sell their entire herds.”

The cattle are fetching good prices, but he said selling can come at a high cost: A rancher can lose in a single sell-off a decade of careful breeding to build desirable weights and other traits.

Oklahoma tends to have a couple of bad droughts every decade. But this time, eastern parts of the state that are usually spared the worst have suffered the most.

Long-term forecasts call for below-normal rainfall through March. And even if precipitation were to return to normal, dry conditions that took a long time to develop “take a long time to go away,” said Ed O’Lenic, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

Dust Bowl survivor worries
Lawson’s 86-year-old neighbor, Warren Salmans, lived through a decade of Dust Bowl drought in the 1930s and remembers a farm-saving rain that fell in September of 1936. This time, the rain didn’t come.

Like his neighbors, Salmans has already sold off part of his herd to get by. “I think I can survive this year,” he said, “but I can’t survive another year.”

Lawson, a retired railroad worker, is thinning his herd, using his retirement savings to feed those that remain and counting on a neighbor’s offer of water if the last half of his 15 ponds go dry.

His hopes were buoyed recently when the state’s first storm system in weeks offered a chance of snow and rain. “That old thunder sounded good, I tell you what,” the farmer said. “It’s been a long time since we heard thunder.”

The next morning, though, his rain gauge held little more than dew drops.

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