June 17, 2014

Recent Rains Help, But Most Of Texas Is Still Very Thirsty

Texas’ severe drought is still going strong

Water has always been important to Texas, but perhaps never more than now, with the state attracting more and more industries, with the energy sector running at full speed and with agriculture – as always – leading the way. But Texas faces numerous water issues, and none may be bigger than the drought which has enveloped much of the state for years.

Recent rains have lessened some of the drought’s impact in several areas, but overall, Texas is still hurting for water — about 70 percent of the state is in some sort of drought status ranging from moderate to exceptional, the highest rank.

John Nielsen-Gammon, professor atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University who also serves as the State Climatologist, knows more about the state’s past – wet or dry – than anyone. He travels the state on a regular basis speaking to various groups about the drought, and the most often-asked question is, “When will the drought end?”

“There is no correct answer,” he says, “because while some parts of the state are better off than they were a few months ago, other parts are worse.

“What people need to understand is that this drought has been going on for a long time. It goes back to late 2010, and since then, every single week has seen at least 40 percent of the state in some form of drought condition according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Also, the statewide Palmer Drought Severity Index, calculated by the National Climactic Data Center, has shown continuous drought for Texas over the same period.”

He adds that May and June are climatologically the wettest months in Texas, but while parts of the state have had record amounts of rainfall in recent weeks, other parts have received much lower-than-normal amounts.

“The outlook for this summer calls for more of the same pattern, with West Texas and the Panhandle areas due to get more rain, probably more so than the Gulf Coast region,” Nielsen-Gammon says.

“The good news is that an El Niño (warm water in the central Pacific Ocean that usually translates to wetter-than-normal conditions over much of the U.S.) appears to be forming this summer, but the beneficial effects from it are generally felt during the wintertime, and primarily in the southern half of the state.”

California, like Texas in 2011, is experiencing its worst drought conditions ever, which is important because the state accounts for about one-half of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables. California remains the No.1 agricultural state in the country.

“The California drought and Texas drought are similar in their overall intensity,” Nielsen-Gammon, who grew up in the San Francisco area, explains.

“But Texas has seen some rainfall recently, while California continues to have its driest year ever. Many reservoirs in both states are very low, and the unfavorable Pacific Ocean temperatures have contributed to the drought in both states.”

Numerous Texas cities set heat records in 2011, such as Wichita Falls, which recorded 100 days of 100-degree heat, the most ever for that city, and Dallas, which had 70 days of 100-degree heat.

“This year, the cool winter and spring, combined with recent wet weather, should help keep summer temperatures down,” says Nielsen-Gammon. “It’s Texas, so summer will be hot, but average temperatures should fall short of the 2011 benchmark.”

Nielsen-Gammon says that agricultural prospects are much better than in 2011.

“The Panhandle areas have improved a great deal from the dusty winter now that some rains have come,” he notes, “but it’s too late to save the winter wheat crop in many areas. Spring and summer crops are off to a good start, and now it’s up to summer rain

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