Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Texas Drought Forecast to Continue, Perhaps For Years

 view of the dry bed of the E.V. Spence Reservoir in Robert Lee, Texas October 28, 2011.

Photo by REUTERS/Calle Richmond /LANDOV

view of the dry bed of the E.V. Spence Reservoir in Robert Lee, Texas October 28, 2011.

Recent rains have brought some relief to some parts of Texas afflicted by drought, especially around Central Texas: reservoir levels are a little higher, and the moisture has greened vegetation that was previously tinderbox-dry, potentially reducing the risk of wildfires this summer.

Now for some bad news: national meteorologists expect the drought to continue or worsen through late summer and early fall in Texas, and ocean patterns are troublingly similar to those during the “drought of record” in the 1950s.

Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its latest drought forecast. It predicts the drought will persist or intensify in most of Texas from July through October. But there is one exception — in Far West Texas, August and September rains are expected to bring some relief to an area from Midland to El Paso, according to NOAA meteorologist Victor Murphy.

Is there reason to believe that the drought will continue well beyond the fall? The forecasts are not out yet, but ocean conditions indicate that continued drought is a possibility.

“The way decadal circulation patterns are setting up, the Atlantic Ocean is warmer than normal, and there’s circulation on the Pacific Ocean, which has gone cooler than normal,” Murphy says. “When those two match up—they should be in sync the next five years or so—those are the conditions that existed back in the 1950s. There’s a distinct possibility, I’m not saying it’s a probability, but there’s a possibility this [drought] could extend for another couple of years.”

Statewide, reservoir levels are at about 64 percent of their full capacity—the lowest levels at this time of year since 1990, according to Murphy. Reservoir levels are about 10 percentage points lower now than they were last summer. Evaporation could further reduce lake and reservoir levels if fall temperatures are higher than average, as they are predicted to be.

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What can Texans do to adapt to the drought? Murphy said that using less water will be essential.

“There really is a lot of stress due to evaporation on area lakes,” Murphy said. “The amount of water that’s lost on area reservoirs and lakes due to evaporation is very significant. As we see these warmer-than-normal temperatures going forward, that should continue to be a significant stress on surface reservoirs.”

In response to the devastating drought in the 1950s, water planners doubled the number of reservoirs in Texas. Now, some Texas cities, water districts, and companies are considering the construction of new reservoirs. And voters will have the chance to vote on setting aside more money for water projects this fall. But in arid parts of the state, Murphy said, reservoirs may lose more water than they collect—raising questions about whether new reservoir construction is sensible policy.

“Is it good public policy to build these large surface reservoirs, especially in the Central and Western parts of the state, where so much of the water is lost due to evaporation? And you don’t really get that much recharge because the yearly rainfall is not that high?” Murphy asked. “Basically, it’s a negative curve. The amount of water you lose due to evaporation is greater than the amount of water that comes in due to replenishment.”


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