Despite recent rains, the historic Texas drought is still alive and well and about 93 percent of the state remains in drought conditions ranging from dry to exceptionally dry, says a Texas A&M University expert.
John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric sciences who also serves as State Climatologist, says that although some much-needed rainfall covered most of the state last week, most of Texas is still unusually dry and water levels are below normal.
“Part of southeast Texas and far west Texas are in pretty good shape and have had normal or above normal rain this year,” he notes. “But those are the exceptions. The hardest hit areas are those around McAllen, west of San Antonio, the Vernon-Wichita Falls area, south of Lubbock, near Midland and Dalhart and around Bryan-College Station. Most of these areas are anywhere from 10-15 inches below normal in rainfall.”
He notes that long-range forecasts tend to be neutral since there is no La Niña or El Niño in the Pacific Ocean this year that normally affects weather patterns and rainfall.
“For its combination of intensity and longevity, I consider the current drought to be the second worst drought in Texas history,” Nielsen-Gammon says.
“The worst drought ever – the drought of record – remains the drought of 1950-57. This drought still has a few years to go to catch up.
“The other rivals in the climate record, which goes back to 1895, were the droughts of 1917-18 and 1961-66. The 1917-18 drought was intense but shorter, and the 1961-66 drought was long but milder.
“The long-term Pacific and Atlantic Ocean temperature patterns still favor drought in Texas, and probably will continue to do so for another 5-15 years. Whether this drought will last that long or whether Texas will have an occasional wet year within that stretch is impossible to say.”
He notes that many reservoirs range from low to extremely low, while many Texas lakes have still not recovered from the 2011 conditions, the worst one-year drought in the state’s history.
“Until the rain event on Sept. 19-20, Texas reservoirs were one or two days away from setting an all-time record for the gap between the amount of water stored and the storage capacity,” he notes. “Our reservoirs were essentially storing 18 million acre-feet of water and 13 million acre-feet of air.”
One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot. The present record was set in 2011, “but without more rain, the record might still fall in another or month so.”
The forecast of near-normal rainfall this winter is good news for water supplies, but Nielsen-Gammon notes that the benefits will be uneven.
“Normal rainfall can fill up East Texas reservoirs, but normal rain in Central and West Texas is too little to make up the gap,” he says.