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 over 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 the 1950s. 2011 was the driest year ever for Texas, with an average of only 14.8 inches of rain. 2011 also set new lows for rainfall for March through May, and again from June through August. The high summer temperatures increased evaporation, further lowering river and lake levels.
The drought began in October 2010. 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. Those persisted until late in the summer of 2013, when a sustained rainy period lowered the percentage of the state experiencing drought.
That doesn’t mean that the drought is over. As of Feb. 11, 2014, 88% of Texas is still in some form of drought conditions, while 23% is in severe drought and 8% of the state is undergoing the worst two stages of drought, either extreme or exceptional drought. The state’s reservoirs are only 64.1% full.
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’s average temperature has increased by an average of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s.
If El Niño predictions for late 2014 prove correct, winter rainfall in Texas could be substantial. A study from Stanford University gives the El Niño weather pattern a 76 percent chance of returning in 2014.
“It tends to cause the jetstream to be farther south than normal, which means we may get more rain events, generally cool temperatures and lots of run-off, which would be good for reservoir levels,” John Nielsen-Gammen, Texas State Climatologist, said.
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 better than last year. But the effects of the drought are far from gone.
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. The plant was scheduled to be finished in the summer of 2013, but Corix, the company that is building the plant, instead expects it to be finished in late February.
The low water levels in Central Texas took their toll on rice farmers near the coast. They rely heavily on water flowing out of the Highland Lakes on 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. A third year of cutoffs for rice farmers is on the horizon. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is currently deciding whether or not to cut off water again.
The drought has also 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. Crops also suffered, as 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 2013 improved the outlook somewhat for agriculture, but drought remained severe in much of the Texas Panhandle, an important agricultural region.
Officials from ERCOT, Texas’ electric grid operator, 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 the summer of 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 will happen next. The latest NOAA outlook predicts a mixed bag for Texas. While the central and eastern parts of the state will likely keep their current status, the drought might intensify from the Hill Country to the Panhandle and in much of West Texas.
The return of El Niño in 2014 could, however, be a salvation for much of drought-stricken Texas. A new study from Stanford University gives the El Niño weather pattern a 76 percent chance of returning this year.
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. Proposition 6 passed with an overwhelming majority, meaning that the $2 billion will launch a rotating loan program to 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.
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.