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Wetter weather is coming this weekend. But it won’t be enough to end Texas’ drought

A San Antonio Water System crew works to fix a water main break in the Adams Hill neighborhood in San Antonio on Thursday.
Chris Stokes
The Texas Tribune
A San Antonio Water System crew works to fix a water main break in the Adams Hill neighborhood in San Antonio on Thursday.

Rain is in the forecast across much of the state. But it won’t be enough to reverse the drought that has gripped Texas since last fall.

Heavy rain storms are expected to blanket Texas this weekend, breaking a blistering heat wave. However, the wetter weather will not be enough to fully end the state’s drought, as drier conditions are expected through September. Nearly the entire state is in a prolonged drought, with an estimated 26 million Texans living in worsening conditions.

Texas had its fifth-driest July on record this year. The state’s reservoirs are 20% below average levels. Farmers are struggling to grow crops without rainfall. More than 400 cities and other public water systems — from Aransas Pass to Zapata County — have put some sort of water restrictions in place to avoid shortages, according to state data.

Among the most dire: Concan, an unincorporated area in Uvalde County, is busing in thousands of gallons of water to keep the region from going dry. What’s more, the local water systems are shut off between midnight and 6 a.m. Residents are permitted one short shower per day. Vehicle washing and above-ground or portable pools of any kind are prohibited. And residents in the county must report leaks immediately and cease outside watering.

“I would say it’s clearly the worst we’ve had since the 2011-2012 drought,” said Victor Murphy, climate service program manager for the federal National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Droughts are caused when there is a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall that leads to a shortage of water. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 62% of Texas is facing extreme drought, one of the most severe categories. About 27% of the state is under an “exceptional drought,” which is the kind that could be seen once every 50 years, Murphy said.

Boiling Texas temperatures have only exacerbated the situation. Climate change has pushed average temperatures higher in Texas, making heat waves and droughts worse and offering less relief at night as minimum temperatures, in particular, have risen rapidly, scientists have found.

In July, the National Weather Service issued excessive heat warnings and heat advisories for the southern Plains of the U.S., which includes Texas, as the region was seeing temperatures well above normal.

July ended being the second warmest of any month on record in Texas, according to NOAA.

Caroline Covington
U.S. Drought Monitor

On July 10, Austin reached 110 degrees, and College Station reached 111, the hottest July temperatures recorded for both cities.

According to the National Weather Service San Antonio, the city recorded at least 50 100-degree days by July 31. The heat in San Antonio has been brewing all summer, as May-July were all the hottest on record for each respective month.

Excessive temperatures have led to increased reports about heat-related illness and fatalities, including at least 10 people in Texas who died from the heat as of June.

A weather break is not enough

Despite a break in 100-degree weather, the long-term forecast is bleak.

NOAA released its three-month drought outlook report Thursday, which shows that there are better chances of rain in September for the state, but most of Texas would still be leaning below average for rainfall.

“It seems like Texas is kind of in the bullseye, at least for several months,” said Richard Tinker, a researcher with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

The drought has led to water shortages, low crop production and an increased amount of wildfires. Since July 25, at least 10,700 acres have burned in wildfires across the state, primarily in Central Texas.

“Usually, the grassfire or wildfire season comes to a pretty fast halt in April, when Texas hits our wet season,” Murphy said. “But not this year. We’re having a lot of pop-up grassfires statewide right now.”

As bad as the drought is, the 2011 drought was worse at this point in the year — 93% of the state was between extreme to exceptional drought. However, the state’s reservoir levels are almost identical to 2011, and are nearly 69% full.

“Statewide reservoir levels have had a pretty steep downward plunge since mid-May,” Murphy said.

There should be major improvements in the drought toward the end of the month. Storm moved into South Texas this week, bringing at least an inch of rain. Some places, like in Terrell County, had about 6 inches of rain in 12 hours.

The storm is expected to move to the rest of the state by the end of the weekend, Murphy said. While the rain is needed, flash flooding will be a concern. According to NOAA, 6 inches of rain could be seen in West, Central and East Texas.

“I think short-term, I would be cautiously optimistic, maybe even moderately optimistic,” Murphy said about the possible improvements.

Cities ask residents to conserve

More than 3.4 million Texans in 92 counties are living with some sort of water restrictions, according to an analysis of data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Among the largest cities with restrictions is San Antonio.

Stage 2 water restrictions are in effect across the region serviced by the San Antonio Water System. Landscape watering is now limited to once per week between a four-hour window in the mornings and evenings; drip irrigation or 5-gallon bucket watering is allowed daily but within a similar four-hour window in the mornings and evenings; and residential car washes are allowed once per week on either Saturday or Sunday.

Water spews out of a fire hydrant as a San Antonio Water System crew works to fix a water main break near Hunt Ln. and Adams Hill in San Antonio, TX on Thursday.
Chris Stokes
The Texas Tribune
Water spews out of a fire hydrant as a San Antonio Water System crew works to fix a water main break near Hunt Ln. and Adams Hill in San Antonio, TX on Thursday.

Making matters worse: As water pressure levels drop from depleting natural resources, water leaks and main breaks have increased. The water line breaks are potentially a result of the drought’s severity. Dry conditions cause the soil to expand and contract, putting pressure on pipes underground — this is especially likely if the water pipes are old.

Even with the current conditions in San Antonio, Robert Puente, the CEO of the San Antonio Water System, said the system is “drought-proof.”

“We don’t know if this drought is going to break in one year or much longer,” Puente said. “But I think we are well-positioned to not have truly adverse effects to our community here. And that’s because of a lot of planning.”

The former state lawmaker said Texas could do more to help manage water conservations.

“The Legislature has never been visionary,” he said. “It’s always been reactionary. We react.”

The state’s water plan has recommended more than 2,400 water management projects meant to offset drought water needs for the next 50 years.

However, many of those projects face barriers to completion, including funding, said Matt Nelson, executive administrator of planning at Texas Water Development Board. Within the past fiscal year, $9.2 billion was allocated to assist with water management projects by the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas.