A History of Drought and Extreme Weather in Texas

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A warning sign along the shore of the dried O.C. Fisher Lake this summer in San Angelo, Texas.

What was it like to be there for the first drought in Texas? Does the past have anything to tell us about our future? A new timeline of droughts and heat in Texas has some answers.

The list, put together by the Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI), the state’s water research group at Texas A&M University, takes a thorough look at the history water in the state. It’s been a scarcity since the settlers arrived, and there’s some fascinating material on the early days of water rights, extreme temperatures and the development of our water infrastructure.

“We went and gathered a lot of information from different sources,” says TWRI Communications Manager Kathy Wythe, who created the timeline. Looking at the history, it’s clear that drought and extreme weather are nothing new to Texas. “There’s a lot of talk about the drought of the 1950s,” she says, “but we’ve periodically had them over the last hundred years.” Wythe finds it interesting that the droughts since the 50s have been a lot shorter, however. A severe drought in 2007 ended abruptly in 2008.

Wythe also noticed looking at the history is that when severe droughts have occurred, the state has responded. “After the 1950s drought, a lot of water planning began and reservoirs were built,” she says. “But even as late as 1997 a major senate bill was passed and regional water groups were formed. That started the bottom-up instead of the top-down approach.”

Some selected dates on droughts and extreme weather from the TWRI timeline:

  • 1822: The first colonists under Stephen F. Austin find Texas weather tough on farming. Their “initial food crop of corn dies from lack of moisture,” according to the timeline. The first droughts are recorded in 1870, then again in 1885-1887.
  • 1900: While the early years in Texas were dry, the turn of the century was the opposite: “Heavy rains falling on the Colorado River watershed caused the river to crest 11 feet above the Austin Dam,” the timeline says, “ultimately destroying it.” Another flood will destroy the re-built dam fifteen years later. In 1940, it is rebuilt by the LCRA and becomes the property of Austin.
  • 1908-1912: Texas has another drought. It has a strange effect on one citizen, C.W. Post, who “spends four years and $50,000 on 23 attempts to use explosives to cause rain. He dies in 1914 believing that he could “shoot up a rain” whenever he wanted to,” according to TWRI. There’s another drought from 1924-1925.
  • 1917-1920: Drought relief laws are passed, which allow counties to lend funds for “citizens to purchase seed and feed.” Irrigation canals are started on the High Plains.
  • 1925-1929: The first water control and improvement districts are formed, and the Brazos River Conservation and Reclamation District is created, the first of its kind. The district is  ”created specifically for the purpose of developing and managing water resources of an entire river basin.” A drought follows in 1933-1934.
  • 1934-1935: The great dust bowl hits, with sand storms in Amarillo for three months. “Seven times, the visibility in Amarillo declines to zero,” TWRI says. “One complete blackout lasts 11 hours and one storm rages for 3 1/2 days.” A drought happens again in 1938-1940.
  • 1950-1957: The drought of record occurs, the driest period in our state’s known history. The city of Dallas restricts lawn watering, and all but ten of the state’s counties are listed as “drought disaster” areas by President Eisenhower.
  • 1957: The drought ends in the spring with “heavy, general rains.” The downpours result in major flooding. Several are killed and hundreds of homes are destroyed. But it isn’t long before another drought arrives, from 1961-1967.
  • 1962: In the midst of the first drought since the 50s drought of record, a cold wave strikes, “comparable to the cold waves of 1899 and 1951,” according to TWRI. During the second week of January, temperatures in the Panhandle drop to below fifteen degrees, and “agricultural losses are $50 million,” the timeline says.
  • 1965: The worst dust storm in a decade hits Lubbock, with wind gusts up to 75 mph “and dust billowing to 31,000 feet.” The timeline reports that “the rain gauge at Reese Air Force Base, Lubbock, contains 3 inches of fine sand” and visibility was reduced to 100 yards. Another sandstorm in 1977 destroys millions of dollars worth of winter wheat and injures 20 in El Paso. Yet another drought hits in 1970-1971.
  • 1984-1985: Conservation becomes the new focus for the state’s water plan. “Conservation of water, which is recognized as being more economical than developing new sources of water,” the timeline states, “becomes a key factor for granting water permits by the Texas legislature.” A drought arrives in 1988-1990.
  • 1995-1996: Another drought strikes, this one with more agricultural losses than any other one-year drought.
  • 1999-2002: Another drought arrives. In August of 1999, “excessive heat throughout August resulted in 16 fatalities in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The airport reported 26 consecutive days of 100°F or greater temperatures,” the timeline says. The next year, extreme heat strikes again, with a 10-day average of 103.3 degrees Fahrenheit at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. 34 die because of heat in the state. And in 2001, the Rio Grande ceases flowing into the Gulf, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crops are lost in the South Plains.
  • 2005-2006: Yet another drought, this one with statewide losses of $4.1 billion. A two-year drought begins in 2007.
  • 2008: Hurricane Ike hits Texas, with winds around 110 mph. The storm kills twelve, injures another 25 and “damage amounts were near $14 billion,” according to the timeline.
  • 2010-2011: The current drought arrives. From October of last year to September of this year, rainfall averages just over eleven inches, making it the driest year in Texas history. Agricultural losses are estimated at $5.2 billion and counting.
  • 2011-2060: The timeline shows that the state’s population is projected to grow from 25.1 million now to 46.3 million in fifty years. The water demand at that point is estimated to be 22 million acre-feet a year, an increase of twenty percent over our current demand of 18 million acre-feet a year.

One of the key sources for the timeline is the state climatologist’s recent briefing on the drought to the state legislature, which StateImpact Texas reported on earlier this month. Other sources include the Legislative Reference Library of TexasTexas Historical Association, the Texas Water Atlas and The Texas Almanac.

You can read the full timeline here at the Texas Water Resources Institute.

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