Parts of Oklahoma have been suffering from severe and exceptional drought conditions for three straight years. That is a long time, especially for communities in western Oklahoma.
But this drought might be closer to its beginning than its end, and with little warning could encompass the entire state next year.
When StateImpact went to the Ada area late in the summer of 2012 to see the effects of the drought, things were crunchy.
A few months later, in Oklahoma City, Lake Hefner recorded its record low level, and drastic measures were taken to make sure metro residents had enough water. Billions of gallons were diverted from Canton Lake.
At one point, state government even turned to religion for help when Gov. Mary Fallin called on Oklahomans to pray for rain.
Those prayers for water seemed to have worked. In 2013 a cool, wet summer dampened the drought across much of the state. But Associate State Climatologist Gary McManus says it’s not over yet.
“In the eastern two-thirds of the state, they’re out of drought. So they can say, ‘we’re out of drought. Let’s hope we stay that way,” McManus says. “Western Oklahoma, they are in the third straight year of drought, and there’s no end in sight. And there’s really no way to tell if there’s an end in sight until it either starts raining — or it doesn’t.”
In fact, McManus says the drought might still be in its early stages, and recent wet weather an aberration.
“Even during the dust bowl drought — the 1930s drought — there was a year in there where it was extremely wet. And in the 50s drought, depending on what part of the state you were in — that was a five to six year drought — but we’d have a period of relief or two in there,” McManus says. “So that’s how these longer term droughts work. They see periods of intensification intermixed with periods of relief. And some unlucky folks, like western Oklahoma, they just get it straight through.”
At the annual Governor’s Water Conference in Midwest City this fall, Veva Deheza, with the National Integrated Drought Information System, said droughts in the southwest fluctuate in intensity and also move around. She says forecasting that movement is nearly impossible:
“The problem is we don’t know when the end is. We’re now here in 2013, and this blob has been moving around in some form over the last couple of years,” Deheza says. “Where it will go next, we don’t have a very clear idea. But all indications are that it’s not going away.”
The question for Oklahoma is whether the drought will move east enough to envelop more or all of the state in 2014. McManus can’t say if that will or won’t happen. But if it does, by this time next year, we could be in a situation just as desperate as before.
It looked like we were coming out of drought as we went into the spring of 2012, and then Mother Nature just shut the spigot off and we had our driest May through December on record,” McManus says. “And so by the end of 2012 the entire state was in significant drought. And that’s how it can happen, and you just can’t predict that sort of thing either. Comparatively, this one is still — I guess — it’s still an infant, about half as long as the 50s drought.”
If you continue the comparison, Oklahoma got some relief from drought in 1955, which was followed by the second driest year in state history in 1956.