By MIKE ANDERSON | Brazos River Authority
Anyone who has kept an eye on the drought as it has come and gone and returned again in recent years might feel a little like baseball legend Yogi Berra, when he described something as “déjà vu all over again.”
In 2009, the central and lower Brazos River basin withered under the most severe level of drought, with some areas being 20 inches or more below normal annual rainfall. That September, a tropical system brought 15-20 inches of rain to those parched areas, and additional rains over the winter moved the entire state out of drought. Then in the fall of 2010, drought returned and lasted for most of 2011. That drought went on to be known as the worst one-year drought recorded in Texas. A wet start to 2012 brought temporary relief to portions of the Brazos River basin, but that wet start was followed by below normal rain in the spring and fall leading into this past winter. While some areas in the upper basin never fully recovered from previous drought, the Brazos basin is again experiencing very dry and possibly worsening conditions.
After being pushed back and forth by these climatic changes, people are no doubt scratching their heads, wondering what to expect next from the weather. Unfortunately, the cautious optimism some climate experts expressed about the weather early this year is fading and yet another year of drought appears more and more likely.
As summer begins, the entire Brazos River basin is experiencing drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Parts of the central and upper basin are under the most severe rating of drought conditions. While some locations received periodic and sometimes heavy rains in the late winter and into the early spring, it was not enough to significantly improve conditions in those areas that needed it most. Over the last six months dating back to October 1, 2012, the entire Brazos basin is well behind normal rainfall totals with most areas 6 to 16 inches below normal.
“October through December statewide was collectively the third driest October-December statewide,” said John Nielson-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist. “Even with the rain we had in January, the four months since October will probably come in as among the 10 driest October-January periods on record, going back to 1895. Also, though we didn’t have the excessive summertime heat we saw in 2011, the year 2012 never got too cold, and 2012 tied 1921 for warmest year on record. This causes extra problems for evaporation.”
For agriculture, the drought has been especially hard-hitting.
Nationwide, drought caused hay stocks to drop to a record low, according to the National Weather Service’s Drought Information Statement. Of Texas’ 254 counties, 157 were declared natural disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture early in the year. Winter wheat was in poor condition, with 80 percent of the state’s crop rated poor or very poor. Hay yields have also been weak; though farmers have generally kept their cattle healthy feeding them stored hay as well as oats and winter wheat.
Lake levels across the state for this time of year are at their lowest overall since 1990. Combined, Texas’ reservoirs were about 66 percent their capacity in June. The drought also has left the Brazos River Authority reservoir system about 77 percent of its capacity and under “Drought Watch” status. Possum Kingdom Lake was down about 10.3 feet, Lake Granbury about 6.9 feet and Lake Limestone about 4.1 feet low. To refill these lakes is going to take many inches of sustained rainfall to saturate the soil and run off into the streams that supply them. Unfortunately some of the driest areas are those that would send runoff downstream to Possum Kingdom and Granbury lakes.
BRA hydrologists have worked up two models showing lake level projections through July, one for “normal” weather conditions and the other for continuing drought conditions. If the drought does not break, water stores for the BRA system could fall to 66 percent of capacity by July 31. Possum Kingdom could drop to 12 feet below full, Lake Granbury – about 9.6 feet low, and Lake Limestone – about 6.3 feet low. But if the basin sees an improvement to more “normal” Texas weather and reservoir inflow levels, the BRA system would be at 83 percent of capacity, no longer at Drought Watch stage.
Without improvement, water shortages across Texas could begin to become more pronounced in the coming months. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, more than 1,000 Texas communities were under water restrictions as spring began. Of those, 19 have less than six months’ water storage. Three communities have less than 45 days’ water supply.
Nielson-Gammon said the main culprit in the sparse rainfall over the winter is El Niño, or rather, its failure to show up. El Niño is a climatic phenomenon where equatorial water in the Pacific Ocean is warmer than normal during the cooler months in the Northern Hemisphere.
This can bring heavier rains across the southern United States, including Texas.
Unfortunately, the National Weather Service correctly forecast El Niño’s continued absence through the spring, reducing the chance of drought-easing rains. In addition, NWS is forecasting above normal temperatures for the next several months, yet another sign that drought is settling in for a long haul. In his Houston Chronicle weather blog, “Climate Abyss,” Nielson-Gammon says the drought has the potential to be the second worst drought on record by the end of summer if conditions don’t improve.
However bleak the forecast, we can each do many things to make our water supply last longer during drought. Conservation, planting drought-tolerant landscapes and harvesting rainwater when it falls are among the many ways we can be good stewards of this increasingly precious resource.
To check the status of drought conditions, BRA reservoir and system water levels and related information, visit http://www.brazos.org/DroughtStatus.asp. One can also check up-to-the-minute lake levels and river flows here.
This article is reprinted from the Brazos Basin News, with permission from the Brazos River Authority.