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February 1, 2000     (512) 463-0300

Senate Finance Committee and House Committee on Appropriations Hold Joint Meeting on Drought Issues at the State Capitol

AUSTIN - There was a joint hearing of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Committee on Appropriations on Drought Issues at the State Capitol, February 1, 2000.

The Senate Finance Committee members include Senators Bill Ratliff of Mt. Pleasant, chair, Carlos F. Truan of Corpus Christi, vice-chair, Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, John Carona of Dallas, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Mario Gallegos, Jr., of Galena Park, Jon Lindsay of Houston, Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth, Steve Ogden of Bryan and Royce West of Dallas.

The House Committee on Appropriations members are: Representatives Robert Junell of San Angelo, chair, George "Buddy" West of Odessa, vice-chair, Garnet F. Coleman of Houston, Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Dianne White Delisi of Temple, Craig Eiland of Galveston, Jessica Cristina Farrar of Houston, Ismael "Kino" Flores of Mission, Pete P. Gallego of Alpine, Helen Giddings of Dallas, Bob D. Glaze of Gilmer, Roberto Gutierrez of McAllen, Will Hartnett of Dallas, Talmadge L. Heflin of Houston, Scott Hochberg of Houston, Kyle Janek of Houston, Vilma Luna of Corpus Christi, Jim McReynolds of Lufkin, Paul C. Moreno of El Paso, Anna Mowery of Ft. Worth, Joe Pickett of El Paso, Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, Robert R. Puente of San Antonio, Todd Staples of Palestine, Dale B. Tillery of Dallas and Sylvester Turner of Houston.

The meeting began with a weather analysis by Shirley Matejka, a meteorologist for the National Weather Center. Matejka discussed drought conditions in Texas and the United States, drought history in Texas, and the effects of the El Nino and La Nina weather conditions in relation to drought in Texas. Matejka stated that weather conditions produced by the so called "La Nina" effect are to blame for the current drought conditions in Texas. La Nina creates colder air on the equator, altering jet streams, which then produces warmer and drier air in the Southern United States. Matejka says that current weather trends do not look good for Texas. La Nina conditons could continue in the years to come, producing frequent droughts in Texas.

Next to testify was Patty Leo with the Office of the Comptroller, of the Strategic Research Division. Leo discussed the fiscal impact that the recent drought has had on the state. She stated drought has caused a negative ripple effect on farming and ranching in Texas. Last year drought cost the state $10.7 billion. While droughts increase the demand for goods, supplies dwindle. Therefore, drought conditions produce under weight cattle, lowers feed supplies and ranch and farm assets. To further complicate problems for farmers and ranchers, drought generates an increase in insect populations.

Susan Combs, Commissioner of Agriculture, discussed in more detail the agricultural impact drought has had on Texas. Combs discussed the hay-haul program, right of way exemptions from the Texas Department of Transportation and the financial burden drought has had on state budgets and farms.

Combs stated that Texas is suffering its third drought in four years. Last year was the driest on record. And state reservoirs levels are the lowest they have been in twenty-two years. For example, rain fall in Central Texas is 44% below normal, and 54% below normal in the Trans-Pecos region. There are sixty public water systems in Texas that are under mandatory water restrictions.

Combs said farming communities are suffering the most from current drought conditions. Texas livestock produces 62% of the revenue for our agricultural economy. Of all the range and pasture land in Texas, 73% are in poor to very poor grazing conditions. All of these factors have increased feed costs to four times above normal. In turn, higher feed costs have forced ranchers and farmers to sell off prized breeding stock.

Although feed costs have risen, Combs stated, an emergency hay-haul program in Texas is not yet needed, but might be in the future if drought conditions continue. Combs said the surrounding states of Oklahoma, Colorado and Mississippi have already been contacted regarding the start-up of a possible hay-haul program; these states are willing to cooperate. Furthermore, the Texas Department of Transportation has been contacted about permitting farmers and ranchers to collect hay and grass in right-of-way areas on Texas highways.

Jim Hull from the Texas Forest Service (TFS) also testified. Hull discussed wildfire management efforts, the impact of wildfires on the forest industry and agency resources and the Texas Wildfire Protection Plan. Hull stated that the rapid population growth in certain areas of Texas has created an increased risk for wildfires, therefore wildfire conditions are at a four-year high. This increase risk of wildfires causes the TFS to spend more and more over budget. In 1996 TFS spent $12 million over budget, in 1999 it was $57 million, and so far for 2000 $11.6 million has been over spent. The TFS tree planting program is expected to generate a $600,000-$700,000 deficit. Hull speculated that TFS' deficit spending resulted from one key event. In 1988 Texas experienced the worst wildfire on state record, 330,000 acres were destroyed. Every year since 1988, the TFS has had request more and more state funds in order to curb deficit spending. The trend still continues in 2000.

Johnny Oswald, Program Director from Texas State Soil and Water Conservation, provided testimony regarding brush control in the North Concho Valley Program. The brush control program uses inmates from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to clear land of juniper and other brush. So far inmates have cleared 2,000 acres of farm land. Farmers and ranchers pay anywhere from $6-12 dollars an acre to have land cleared by the inmates.

Andrew Sansom from the Texas Parks and Wildlife also testified. He discussed the economic impact of the drought on recreation facilities and population sizes of wildlife and fisheries. Sansom stated that low water levels on lakes have reduced the business revenue these areas usually generate--due to lower attendance. Wildlife populations have also suffered from drought conditions. Antelope populations have decreased, while deer populations have increased to unmanageable levels. Fisheries have experienced lower populations of Red Drum and Speckled Trout.

Invited public testimony was provided by Michael Thuss of the San Antonio Water System, Greg Ellis of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, Steve Pringle of the Farm Bureau, Ed Small of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers, Tony Williams of the Texas Cotton Ginners Association, Ed Edmundson of the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, and written testimony was submitted from the Texas Grain Sorghum Provider Board.

The Senate Finance Committee and the House Committee on Appropriations plan to hold more public hearings on drought issues during the interim. The committee will submit its findings in the form of a report to be presented to the 77th Legislature, which convenes in January of 2001.

Click here to watch the hearing in RealVideo format.

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