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State Climatologist to Ranchers: Careful With Your Water

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon speaking at Sul Ross State University in Alpine (KRTS/Travis Bubenik)

State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon spoke to a room full of ranchers from across the southwest on Thursday, with this message: careful how you use that water.

Ranchers were gathered in Alpine for an annual meeting of the Society for Range Management’s Texas chapter, sharing ideas on how to best manage cattle and grasslands, among other tricks of the trade.

Nielsen-Gammon says with climate change, ranchers out west need to pay close attention to water and soil.

“The biggest effect out here is going to be be a side-effect of the rising temperatures,” he says, “which is increasingly dry soils and increasing lack of runoff.”

He says the drought we’re currently in is one of the worst the state’s ever seen, and even with recent heavy rains in West Texas – a sign that we could be on the way out of this dry pattern – the longer-term effects of warmer temperatures will cause all that rain to evaporate quicker in the future.

“Water conservation and retention of water in rangelands is going to become increasingly important,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “We’re sort of on the cusp of there being enough water versus not enough water, and a small change in evaporation can make a big difference.”

As temperatures change and evaporation kicks up, grasses and plants might start growing at different elevations. That could affect how ranchers run their herds, and those herds might just have to be smaller.

Still, Nielsen-Gammon says ranchers and the wildland community as a whole are more focused on the short-term, and understandably so.

He says the climate in Texas is already one of the most variable climates in the world from decade-to-decade, and that alone will have a more intense impact on the land over the coming decades.

Still, if ranchers can get a handle on good conservation practices now, they’ll be better-equipped to handle climate change in the long run.

“If you’re able to deal with drought, you’re going to be able to deal with climate change fairly well also, because that’s only going be an incremental factor on a year-to-year basis,” he says.

But whether you’re worried about saving water for next year or the next century, Nielsen-Gammon says don’t bet on it getting any easier.

“My main message for people 20 years in the future would be don’t count on this lasting,” he says. “We’re going to go through dry periods, and with climate change the next dry period is going to be worse than the current one.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.