North Texas heads into it’s fourth summer of extreme drought

North Texas heads into its fourth summer of extreme drought

Savannah Whitmer, News Editor

While dryness this summer seems to be widespread throughout the southwest, more than 50 percent of Texas has been ranked with “Exceptional” and “Extreme” drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Consequently, North Texans will be facing increasing water restrictions this summer, something many Texans are used to at this point.

The drought Texas is facing is record-setting and has been going on for more than 4 years.

“The definition of drought used by the United States Drought Monitor is an extended period of dry conditions so unusual as to only have a 20% chance of occurring at any given time yet so pronounced as to cause problems for agriculture, water supply, etc,” Regents Professor and Texas State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon said. “Texas first began its extended series of dry weather in October 2010. By the end of November 2012, the lack of rain had lasted long enough to be called a drought.”

With the two main reservoirs of central Texas holding just 36 percent of their full capacity and annual rainfall coming 10 inches below average according to Nielsen-Gammon, many Texans are anticipating a 20 percent cut in water use by midsummer.

“We are climatologically in our driest time of the year,” National Weather Service meteorologist Dennis Cavanaugh said to Dallas Newsin February. “So it makes sense that we’re dry. But we’re even drier than we should be at our driest time of the year. So that is concerning.”

One factor for the drought can be linked to a weather pattern called La Nina, which causes warmer and drier conditions in areas like Texas, especially near the coast.

“With the randomness of the weather, you will inevitably get occasional periods of dry weather and even drought,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “But there are certain ocean temperature patterns that make drought much more likely by altering jet stream patterns or thunderstorm activity. For Texas, the most important factor is La Niña, which is an extended period of below-normal temperatures in the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean.”

La Nina’s counterpart, however, would be much more welcome in the near future. El Nino is a pattern of warmer-than-usual water in the ocean, causing more rain showers for an extended period of time.

“Winds are driven by temperature variations,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “Stronger winds cool the ocean more, increasing temperature differences and in turn intensifying the winds. Light winds have the opposite effect, allowing the tropical water to warm and decreasing the temperature difference across the tropical Pacific. These things affect where all the thunderstorm activity will be in the tropics, and that in turn affects the pattern of the upper-level jet stream, about 7 miles above the ground.”

The prevalence of La Nina in recent years generates long-term effects, including the limited water supplies in a long list of Texas areas.

Wichita Falls, a 2 hour drive from Lucas, is one of the cities at risk of running out of water in the next years, with stage 5 water restrictions applying to all residents. As a result, Wichita Falls is likely to be the first city in the nation to use half of all recycled wastewater as drinking water, informally called “toilet-to-tap” by some residents.

While these extreme measures may be distasteful for some, environmental lawyer Tom Mason said to NPR in 2012 that in the next 30 years, more than 60 percent of all water will be treated wastewater.

In addition, drought is a major cause of fires damaging much of Texas as well as California and other areas in the Southwest. In May alone, more than 2,000 acres in a single Texas town were burned by wildfires, according to USA Today.

“A lot of these fires would be a lot more manageable and not nearly as damaging if not for the drought,” Hutchinson County emergency management coordinator Danny Richards said to USA Today in May.

“It seems to get worse and worse by the year,” Hutchinson County Deputy Fire Chief Jason Wright said to USA Today in May. “We’re just not getting any moisture out here.”

Drought also costs a lot of money. In 2011 alone, direct agricultural loss amounted to $8 billion, and resulted in all-time high beef and wheat prices.

It also affects energy sources. When water levels are normal, hydropowered electricity can be produced cheaply, costing less than half as much to produce than nuclear plant power. But according to The Austin American Statesman “the amount of hydroelectric power generated across Texas dropped 24 percent from 2012 to 2013,” a concerning decrease in production.

The effects of drought are far-reaching and devastating, and while long-term impacts are uncertain, the future for water supply is not looking great.

“You can make up the perceived deficit pretty quickly,” Cavanaugh said to Dallas Newsin February. “But we need a widespread rainfall with river flooding. It’s temporarily a bad thing, but that means it has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is our reservoirs. And we haven’t had a good river-flooding event in a while. That’s what we really need, not just a thunderstorm over D/FW. We need a widespread rainfall that will result in river flooding. And that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon.”