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Texas climatologists warn of potential for prolonged drought

Texas drought map 2022.
U.S. Drought Monitor
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The latest drought map for conditions as of March 2022 shows some contraction and easing of drought in the Panhandle and East Texas. Other parts of the state, including parts of Central and South Texas, experienced continued degradation of drought conditions.

Spring rainfall amounts can help predict if Texas will stay in a prolonged drought. So far, early signs aren't too promising. Current drought conditions have already been partially blamed for an outbreak of wildfires throughout the state.

While much of Texas is mired in drought conditions as warmer months are on the horizon, state climatologists are looking closely at future rainfall predictions to gauge just how long dry conditions will last.

So far, they say, the outlook isn’t good.

“Now the fact that we've been dry for several months already, unfortunately that increases the risk of having a very bad summer if the rest of the spring turns out to be below normal also,” said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

Nielson-Gammon said that normally, Texas gets more rainfall from October through April or May. Then, that moisture evaporates. But a dry spring and summer mean that trend is quickly reversed.

“If we don't make up a good portion of this deficit over the next few months, then soil will dry out very quickly in the summer and that leaves not only left storage available, but also higher than normal temperatures,” he said.

About 88 % of the state was in a drought condition as of Monday, according to the Texas Water Development Board’s regular update. Those conditions range from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional” drought conditions. This week’s update shows a slight improvement from last week, when 91% of the state was in a drought. But the TWDB’s outlook is similar to Nielson-Gammon’s of a prolonged, dry weather pattern.

“The National Weather Service remains pessimistic regarding drought conditions in Texas,” wrote Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist in the TWDB’s Office of Water Science and Conservation. “Over the next few months, they expect continued La Niña conditions with above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation for our state. By the end of June, all of Texas is expected to be experiencing drought.”

La Niña is a weather pattern in the Pacific that impacts how wet or dry certain parts of the world are. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, La Niña causes cooler weather in the Eastern Pacific, which means fewer rain clouds and less rainfall for the southwestern United States.

Nielson-Gammon said the current weather pattern is one of the driest in about a decade after a period of decent rainfall for most of the state.

“We get it wet decades and dry decades. During the period like 1996 through 2014 we had a lot more dry years than wet years,” he said. “But then the next few years, starting in 2015, were wetter than normal. So this is the first widespread, extreme drought really since the early part of the last decade.”

He added, while predicting climate change’s effects on total rainfall is challenging, one certainty is that water won’t be as plentiful as it once was.

“Climate change, of course, affects everything. We don't really have a good handle on what will happen with overall rainfall amounts with climate change. But the most obvious consequences of higher temperatures [are] leading to greater evaporation rates so that the same amount of water doesn't go as far as it used to,” he said.

According to Wentzel, while a drought means some Texans will feel some pain, the current surface water system was designed to withstand prolonged dry spells.

“Our whole water planning process was spawned from the 1950s drought. And so that's kind of the target, we want to make sure that we can provide for municipal and agricultural and industrial users through a repeat of the drought,” he said. “And so it doesn't mean we wouldn't feel some pain and it wouldn't be difficult for us. But that's what we're trying to be able to survive with our water planning process. And the 2011 - 2014 drought certainly tested that.”

That system will continue to be tested as Texas’ population grows and adds to demand, he said. But the current system should be able to sustain that growth.

“It's always uncomfortable to be tested, but it's nice to know that our water supply system can survive a multi-year drought,” he said.

Current drought conditions have already been partially blamed for an outbreak of wildfires throughout the state. As of Tuesday, firefighters were battling nearly a dozen blazes. The largest, the Crittenburg Complex, began on the grounds of U.S. Army base Fort Hood outside Killeen and has since spread to private property in Coryell County.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 33,000 acres had burned, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service wildfire response system. It was about 70 % contained. In Kinney County, a 1,750 acre fire continued to burn as of Tuesday evening. The West Nueces fire, as it’s been dubbed, was 40% contained.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.