The Drought of the 1950s

For many Americans, the 1950s are remembered fondly. In Texas it was a different story. Texans endured a 7-year uninterrupted drought (1950-56), which some say was the worst in 700 years. Experts believe this drought began in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and West Texas in 1949. From 1949-51, Texas rainfall dropped by 40% and West Texas experienced severe declines. By 1952, more than half the state received 20 to 30 inches less rainfall than normal. In 1952, Texas' monthly rainfall average fell to just 0.03 inches -- the lowest level since the Weather Bureau began collecting records in 1888. For the first time since 1914, Lubbock did not even record a trace of rain. Even hardy west Texas mesquite trees began to die. By 1953, 75% of Texas recorded below normal amounts of rainfall. Seven million parched acres scarred Texas and Oklahoma. That summer in the High Plains, bulldozers were used to remove drifts of blowing soil from highways.

Photos courtesy of Texas Collection / Baylor University
The drought of the 1950s became so bad that many West Texas ranchers ran out of grassland to graze their cattle on, and hay prices soared. As a result, some ranchers resorted to burning catcus, removing the spines, and using it for cattle feed. The photo at right shows a farmer pitching cactus out of a truck and tossing it to hungry cattle.

One effect of the 1950s drought was that it lowered lake levels dramatically. These two photos from the Waco area show lakefront homes that would normally be on the waterfront now rising above nothing but dirt, and a pier that extends out above a pile of mud.

The 1953 summer was blistering -- Dallas endured 52 days in excess of 100deg. F while Corsicana topped the century mark 82 times. The heat wave followed five years of below normal rains. Half the state received rains that were 30 inches less than normal amounts. Lake Dallas stood at only 11% of capacity. In 1954, yearly statewide rainfall averaged 18 inches, the least since 1917. In Dallas, water had to be rationed and a pump station was built to import water from the Red River. However, that water was so salty that it destroyed car radiators, fouled piping systems, and was unhealthy for people with heart and kidney problems. Dallas then opened stations where people could buy cartons of water from artesian wells for 50 cents a gallon, which was more than the cost of gasoline. More than 1,000 towns and cities had to enforce strict water conservation measures or import supplies. In the spring of 1955, rolling clouds of dust on the High Plains reduced visibility and motorists drove with their headlights on at midday. By 1956, Comal Springs, which normally flowed at the rate of 200 million gallons per day, dried up for the first time in recorded history. From 1954-56, flows in the Guadalupe River dropped from an average of 241,000 acre-feet (AF) to only 10,000 AF and were below normal for all but one month. As a result of the low flows, 11 power plants were crippled and sensitive aquatic species were threatened. Farmers saw grain yields drop by 20% and ranchers resorted to burning spines off prickly pear cactus and blending molasses as livestock feed supplements. Farmers began dramatically increasing the amount of groundwater pumped for irrigation. A Kinney County Extension Agent summed things up by saying, "We are fast finding out that water is about as valuable as oil, only we can drink water." By 1957, all but 10 of Texas' 254 counties were declared federal drought disaster areas. Finally, in the Spring of 1957, the drought ended. Dallas reported the second wettest May in its history, Kingsville received three inches in an hour, and there was street flooding in Bracketville. Cooke and Grayson counties had to apply for flood relief by June.

The impact of the drought can be shown by these stories. Texas schoolchildren were so used to the drought that many of them reached for brown crayons, not green ones, to color a picture of grass. A Junction family gave their 10-year-old daughter a raincoat as a birthday present in 1951. Because there were no rains, neither the 10-year-old nor her 5-year-old sister were ever able to use it. The coat died a natural death about the time it finally rained.

From Texas Water Resources Volume 22 Number 2: Summer 1996 'Links From' Pages linking to this page: ( )No IndexDir ... Refs General ... !RefsRvu ... !Dir.nts) InfoLinks (05-22-2015@07:28) Linkstat:LinksFrom2Table
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