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Environment & Nature

Texas drought strengthens its grip, triggering wildfires, water restrictions and crop disasters

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Jordan Vonderhaar
/
The Texas Tribune
A prescribed burn in Bastrop State Park escaped its containment area and burned nearly 800 acres in January. Wildfires have erupted across Texas this spring as a deepening drought and record heat hammer the state.

Hundreds of wildfires have broken out this spring. More than a dozen areas are under voluntary or mandatory water use restrictions, and more than 200 Texas counties have been designated as crop disaster areas.

An increasingly severe drought now covers more than 90% of Texas, according to the U.S. drought monitor, affecting more than 16 million Texans and stressing ecosystems in nearly every region of the state.

In West Texas, a wildfire has burned at least 27 homes and forced much of Taylor County to evacuate; it’s one of nine wildfires that firefighters battled to contain last week. In the Panhandle, the drought has devastated the wheat crop. In South Texas, the Rio Grande has run dry in some areas.

Since September, average rainfall in Texas is less than 10 inches — the first time that’s happened since 1925, according to state climatologist John Neilsen-Gammon.

“This is only the second drought where you have more than half of the state in extreme drought conditions,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

East Texas has fared better so far, but the National Weather Service predicts that dry conditions could push further east by the end of this summer.

The drought was prompted by La Niña, a natural Pacific Ocean cycle that impacts weather and typically brings dry and warm conditions to Texas, and its consequences have been accelerated by climate change. According to National Weather Service experts, the current pattern looks similar to 2010-11, when the last major drought wreaked havoc with the state’s municipal water supplies and agriculture yields.

“The worst [recent] drought in Texas by far was in 2011,” said Aaron Treadway, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in the Austin-San Antonio region. “We’re slowly creeping up there again.”

Droughts are enhanced by climate change, which increases average temperatures and reduces soil moisture, causing crops to fail and reservoirs to drop.

“There’s nothing that happens that isn’t affected by climate change,” said Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric sciences professor at Texas A&M University.

Several metro areas across the state have broken century-old temperature records this month, prompting weather officials to warn the public to stay hydrated, avoid the sun, and check on relatives and neighbors who could be vulnerable to heat exhaustion.

Temperatures recently exceeded 105 degrees in West Central Texas, including a swath of counties near San Angelo, while San Antonio last week recorded some of its hottest days ever for mid-May — including 101 degrees on Wednesday.

Fueled by soaring temperatures and drought, hundreds of wildfires have already broken out across the state this spring. Since January, more than 400,000 acres have burned, more than seven times as many acres as the same period last year — but still far below the record-breaking drought and fire year of 2011. The fire risk has prompted 131 of Texas’ 254 counties to impose outdoor burn bans, according to Texas A&M Forest Service.

Weekend rains across much of Texas offered a break from the record-breaking temperatures, but experts said it wasn’t enough to blunt the drought. The National Weather Service forecasts the drought will expand in Texas through at least August.

Water supply worries lawmakers

The lack of rainfall has also prompted at least 15 water utilities, mostly in the Hill Country, to issue mandatory water use restrictions this year, according to data reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Some reservoirs in the western half of the state are already stressed. At Medina Lake, which helps supply water to San Antonio, water levels have fallen to less than 20% of capacity, down from 36% a year ago. As of Friday, the state’s reservoirs were 79% full, according to the Texas Water Development Board. Typical storage levels in Texas are closer to 85% this time of year.

Underground aquifers, which are typically more resistant to drought, are beginning to decline in parts of the state as well. The Edwards Aquifer, a key water source for the San Antonio region, is nearly 20 feet below its normal levels for this time of year, according to the National Weather Service.

More than a third of the state’s irrigation and livestock water supplies are provided by the Ogallala/Edwards-Trinity Aquifer, according to the Texas Water Development Board. The Panhandle-area aquifer has lost an average of more than 6 feet in the last decade, according to the High Plains Water District, and in some places the losses have exceeded 18 feet.

A growing population needs more water, and state lawmakers are concerned that a statewide plan to develop new water sources won’t be sufficient. Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said during a May 10 Senate committee hearing that the Texas Water Development Board appears to be planning around projects that are unlikely to be built quickly enough to provide more water for the growing state and called for more “innovative” projects, including desalination plants that could make seawater from the Gulf of Mexico drinkable.

“The water plan has things in it that if we are truly honest today, aren’t going to happen,” said Perry, who chairs the Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. “We have to start earnestly seeking out other options.”

The plan calls for 23 new reservoirs to be built across the state by 2070 at an estimated construction cost of around $12 billion; a Texas Water Development Board staff member told Perry that it typically takes around 20 years to permit and construct a reservoir.

“There’s pockets of this state that don’t have until 2070,” Perry said. “As the state is growing, the options get fewer and fewer every day.”

Most Texas counties receive crop disaster designations

Soil moisture in most of the state is so low that crops are already failing or expected to be much smaller than usual even with the recent rain, said Jourdan Bell, a regional agronomist for Texas A&M AgriLife in Amarillo.

“If you’re negative $100 and you get paid $10, that’s nice, but it sure didn’t get you out of your deficit,” Bell said. “In this drought, we are truly in a deficit.”

More than 200 Texas counties have received crop disaster designations — which makes loans and other financial assistance available — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture due to extended drought conditions.

The olive crop in several South Texas counties could be a near-total failure, according to experts at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, and cattle ranchers have reported culling their herds as rangeland dries.

In the Panhandle, at least 40% of the wheat crop, which is typically harvested in June, will likely fail this year, Bell said. The number of failed acres “is increasing by the day,” she said.

Many Panhandle farmers have opted to plant cotton — which is more drought resistant — instead of corn, which is one of the primary crops for feeding livestock.

“We have historically depended on irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer,” Bell said. “But in recent years, we have seen the Ogallala Aquifer decline to a point where we can no longer meet the crop water demands.”