The wet weather that inundated Texas from the spring of 2015 through early 2017 appears to be largely a thing of the past, as dry conditions – including drought – begin to grip more of the state, including the Brazos River basin. As December began, 74 percent of the basin was either abnormally dry or experiencing moderate drought.
One of the indications of encroaching dry weather is the Stage 1 Drought Watch issued by the Brazos River Authority for Lake Georgetown on Nov. 27. The drought watch became necessary due to the lack of natural inflow into Lake Georgetown since this spring. As a result, there has been a continuous pumping of water from Lake Stillhouse Hollow into Lake Georgetown since mid-October.
While the increasing drought is being monitored, Brad Brunett, water services manager for the BRA, said he is hopeful that the conditions will not be a return to the type of persistent dry weather that affected the state in the recent past.
“There is always some concern when dry weather sets in; but, the long-range weather outlooks aren’t really pointing to the strong likelihood of prolonged drought conditions like those we saw from 2011-2015,” he said.
While Possum Kingdom Lake and Lake Granbury remain 97 percent full, there are other reservoirs, such as Lake Georgetown, Lake Limestone and Lake Proctor that are well below that level. Still, that is not a pressing concern at this time, Brunett said.
“It would be nice if all the reservoirs were at or near full, but (reservoirs at or below 80 percent) are not alarming and are within normal ranges for this time of year,” he said. The reservoir system as a whole remains above 90 percent full.”
The prolonged drought of 2011-2015 provided some good lessons for future droughts, Brunett said.
“BRA made changes to its Drought Contingency Plan in 2012 following the extreme drought conditions in 2011,” he said. “A new trigger associated with the Palmer Drought Severity Index was added to provide earlier warning of the onset of drought conditions, and water use reduction goals for various drought stages were increased to help prolong our water supply in the event of another extended drought.”
The goal of the drought watch for Lake Georgetown is a 5 percent reduction of water use, and an awareness of the drought conditions. As a result of the drought watch, BRA customers that obtain their water from Lake Georgetown have been asked to activate their drought contingency plan and to increase public education about ways to reduce water use. Those affected by the drought watch include water customers of the cities of Round Rock and Georgetown, and those served by the Brushy Creek Municipal Water District.
Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon has noted the encroaching dry conditions continue to spread. The week before Thanksgiving, 45 percent of the state was classified as experiencing abnormally dry conditions or drought. By the end of November, those conditions were reported in more than 71 percent of Texas. As November unfolded, there was a “significant increase in drought conditions,” he said.
“We are beginning to enter into a particularly dry season of the year,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “Nearly the entire state spent (the last week of November) without observing any rainfall.”
The National Weather Service forecast is for below average amounts of rainfall for Texas and much of the south from December through February. Considering the fall months have also resulted in less than average precipitation, the likelihood for increasingly dry and drought conditions is magnified.
“It is strange to be so concerned about drought, especially after the active tropical season that is coming to a close,” according to a report from the National Weather Service’s West Gulf River Forecast Center. “But recent rainfall has been sparse. Moderate drought has been increasing. Basically, the drought will continue to increase in size and intensity, and will take center stage.”
Playing a significant role in the weather outlook is the possibility of La Niña weather patterns in the Pacific Ocean, which creates drier and warmer than usual weather in Texas. The last El Niño weather pattern produced the opposite result throughout the Brazos basin in 2015 and 2017, resulting in abundant rainfall and offering relief from several years of prolonged drought. However, based on the weather outlook for the next few months, drought appears likely to impact significant parts of the state. with 5.5 percent of the state classified as experiencing severe drought conditions as December began.
While the weather is much more likely to be drier and warmer than usual overall, there can still be brief periods of intensely cold weather and freezing conditions, forecasters note.
The portion of the state considered to be abnormally dry has steadily risen since early September, up from just 10.29 percent of the state three months ago, according to the United States Drought Monitor. That lower rate ironically occurred during the heart of summer, a period that is usually considered to be the driest part of the year in Texas.
With the dry conditions, the chances of wildfires greatly increase. The Texas A&M Forest Service notes that there is a high to very high danger of wildfires in western parts of the state, including Lubbock. The forest service issued a red flag warning for parts of the state, meaning that “any fires that start may spread rapidly and may be harder for firefighters to contain. Throughout most of the Brazos basin, most of the area had a moderate fire danger warning. Portions of the far western part basin had a high fire danger rating.
On just one day -- Nov. 20, the Texas A&M Forest Service responded to 10 wildfires that affected 2,681 acres.
By Dec. 1, a total of 75 Texas counties had enacted outdoor burn bans, including Bell, Falls, Limestone, Freestone, Johnson, Comanche, Eastland, Callahan, Stephens, Throckmorton, Baylor, Garza, Crosby, Bailey, Palmer, Lamb, Cochran which are all within the Brazos basin.
While dry conditions may linger for a while, we are still a few months away from knowing what conditions will be like next summer, Brunett said.
“Assuming dry conditions persist through the winter,” he said, “spring rainfall from March through June -- normally our wettest time of year -- will set the stage for the summer of 2018.”