How Long Has the Current Drought Been Going On?
The majority of Texas is currently experiencing drought. Most of the state has been under drought conditions for three years.
State Climatologist John-Nielsen Gammon has warned that Texas could be in the midst of a drought worse than the drought of record. In 2011, the months from March through May, and then June through August all set records for low rainfall. The high temperatures over the summer months increased evaporation, further lowering river and lake levels.
2011 was the driest year ever for Texas, with an average of only 14.8 inches of rain. The only comparable drought occurred during the drought of record during the 1950s, but no single year during that drought was as dry as 2011.
The drought began in October 2010 and has continued through 2013. The state experienced a short and rainy respite in the winter and spring of 2012, but by the fall of 2012 dry conditions had returned to much of the state.
As of June 4, 2013, 95 percent of Texas is in some form of drought conditions, and the state’s reservoirs are only 67 percent full. About 16 percent of the state is in “exceptional” drought, the worst stage.
What Is Causing the Drought?
The main culprit of the intense 2011 dryness was La Niña, a weather pattern where the surface temperatures are cooler in the Pacific. This in turn creates drier, warmer weather in the southern U.S. (You may also know her counterpart, El Niño, which generally has the opposite effect.) La Niña sticks around for a year, sometimes longer, and tends to return once every few years. (The last La Niña was in 2007, but it was a much lighter one.)
An El Niño weather patten was predicted to bring some relief to the state in the winter of 2012-2013, but it failed to appear. The state climatologist predicted abnormally dry weather and higher than average temperatures through summer 2013, which could make the drought worse than the drought of record in the 1950s.
In February 2013, the state climatologist told the Texas Legislature that high temperatures related to climate change have exacerbated the drought. He said that the state temperature has increased by an average of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s.
Maps of the Drought
The U.S. Drought Monitor map is released each week. The maps below show how the drought has progressed, beginning in October 2010 to what could arguably be the peak of the drought, the first week of October 2011, and then to the first week of February 2012:
Visually, the situation appears slightly better than last year but the drought is predicted to hold steady or worsen in the coming months.
What Are the Effects of the Drought?
The drought has helped drain reservoirs, fuel wildfires, ruin crops and put a real strain on the state’s electric grid.
Dry conditions fueled a series of wildfires across the state in early September 2011. The most devastating, the Bastrop Complex Fire in Bastrop County, scorched over 34,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,300 homes.
The situation reached a new level of urgency in late January of 2012 when wells in the town of Spicewood Beach, Texas officially ran out of water. Some 1,100 residents now depend on tanker trucks to deliver water to the town’s storage tank. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) owns the water system and is overseeing the emergency water operation. The agency is still trucking water into the town and will continue to do so until a surface water treatment plant can supply water from Lake Travis, which should be finished in the summer of 2013.
Central Texas’ Highland Lakes, the primary water reservoirs in the region, stood at 39 percent full in June 2013.
The low water levels in Central Texas took their toll on rice farmers near the coast who rely heavily on water flowing out of those lakes in the Colorado River. In March, the combined lake levels remained below 850,000 acre feet, prompting the LCRA to cut off water supplies to farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties for the second year in a row.
The drought has affected a wide-range of industries in Texas. Economists estimate that the drought has cost farmers and ranchers upwards of $8 billion. Some farmers and ranchers have rented or leased parts of their properties to recreational hunters in an attempt to make up some of their lost profits. The price of hay increased by 200 percent during the drought. Since the price of feeding cattle has skyrocketed, ranchers are culling their herds, selling off large numbers of cattle in auctions to out-of-state buyers. Farmers are in similarly dire straits. Corn outputs fell by 40% in 2011 and peanut production is down as well. The lack of crops has created conditions for severe dust storms across the western part of the state. Rains in June 2013 improved the outlook somewhat for agriculture, but drought remained severe in much of the Texas Panhandle, an important agricultural region.
Officials from ERCOT are also concerned. Nuclear, coal, and natural gas energy production all require large amounts of fresh water to cool equipment. High energy usage and scorching temperatures caused ERCOT to close one factory overnight during the height of the summer’s heat. Officials worry that another spring and summer with low rainfall could mean the closure of some power plants.
Texas officials predicted the reserve margin (the amount of excess power available to the grid on top of what is already generated) will be healthy through summer 2014.
When Will the Drought End?
As far as long term prospects, meteorologists are now forecasting that it will have to get a little worse before it gets better. Since “summer rains are unpredictable,” as state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon mentioned in an earlier interview, it is hard to tell what this year will bring. But if the La Niña weather patten returns in the fall of 2013, it could result in dire conditions. The latest NOAA outlook predicts the drought will “persist or intensify” in parts of Texas in the coming months, while other drought-stricken regions in the state are expected to experience some improvement.
What to Expect in the Future
With no definitive end to the state’s water woes in sight, the 83rd Texas Legislature voted to hold a referendum to decide whether the state will allocate $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to fund projects in the State Water Plan. If the referendum passes, the $2 billion will launch a rotating loan program that would fund conservation, pipelines, reservoirs, and other water projects that are approved by the Texas Water Development Board. Twenty percent of the fund is earmarked for conservation projects, and another 10 percent is set aside for rural water projects. Whether Texas voters will pass the referendum is uncertain; it will be up for a vote on November 5, 2013.
The drought, the extreme heat and the fires that came with it have made these historic years for Texas. And it will leave a mark that will be felt long after the drought is over: trees will continue to die from stress, roads will continue to break apart, and food prices will continue to fluctuate.