Drought is Back
We say something is as reliable as the sun rising each morning. But we know, in reality, it is not the sun that moves but the Earth that revolves in orbit around the sun. And still, we schedule and prepare our world based on the light that fills the sky.
We could do the same around rainfall – setting our lives around a dominant cycle that guarantees there will be years of normal rainfall, drought, and then flooding, again and again.
But, in Texas, even with the limited supply, we struggle with the idea of living with this very regular cycle rather than adapting to it. We plant water-thirsty lawns and landscaping and expect our lakes (really man-made water storage reservoirs) always to be full when we have time for recreation.
And, frankly, the rain, drought, and flood cycle are just as regular in Texas as the sun's rising and setting.
As we once again find ourselves in the midst of a drought, Texans can take this dry-weather opportunity to prepare for the possibility that this could be a short dry spell that will end as April showers bring May flowers, or a period like 2010 – 2015 where we've entered into another multi-year period without sufficient rain.
We can fight it. Or we can accept and adapt. Small actions won't be in vain.
The current drought outlook isn't hopeful.
More than 88 percent of the state is currently experiencing some level of drought. As of April 12, extreme drought had already ravaged more than 49% of the state of Texas, affecting roughly 18 million people.
Since 2000, there have only been four years -- 2006, 2011, 2012, and 2014 – where the state reached that percentage of extreme drought or higher.
And the drought is expected to worsen through June, according to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center March report. As dryness persists into the spring planting season, the consequences may become much more severe. Above-normal temperatures combined with below-normal precipitation and high winds exacerbate conditions.
To prepare, it helps to understand the terms. So, what exactly does extreme drought mean?
Drought is characterized in five categories by the U.S. Drought Monitor - a joint effort of the National Drought Mitigation Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
D0 – Abnormally Dry
- Producers begin supplemental feeding for livestock
- Planting is postponed; forage germination is stunted; hay cutting is reduced
- Grass fires increase
D1 – Moderate Drought
- Dryland crops are stunted
- Early cattle sales begin
- Wildfire frequency increases
D2 – Severe Drought
- Pasture conditions are very poor
- Soil is hard, hindering planting; crop yields decrease
- Wildfire danger is severe; burn bans are implemented
D3 – Extreme Drought
- Soil has large cracks; soil moisture is very low; dust and sand storms occur
- Row and forage crops fail to germinate; decreased yields for irrigated crops and very large yield reduction for dryland crops are reported
- Need for supplemental feed, nutrients, protein, and water for livestock increases; herds are sold
D4 - Exceptional Drought
- Exceptional and widespread crop loss is reported; rangeland is dead; producers are not planting fields
- Seafood, forestry, tourism, and agriculture sectors report significant financial loss
- Extreme sensitivity to fire danger; firework restrictions are implemented
This ranking method was created with the U.S. Drought Monitor's origin in 2000. And since that time, the longest duration of drought (D1–D4) in Texas lasted 271 weeks - May 4, 2010, through July 7, 2015, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The most intense period of drought occurred the week of October 4, 2011, where D4 affected 87.99% of Texas.
Makes you sweat just thinking about it.
Depending on where you lived in the state during those years, you may remember city leaders enacting restrictions due to declining water supply levels. Some included limiting how often and when you could water your yard. But, based on the level of drought, it could have included prohibiting car washes or the refilling of swimming pools, operating any ornamental fountain, and even suspending any new application for water service connections.
Many of these restrictions were put in place in the Brazos River basin once specific water-related triggers were met, including those in the Brazos River Authority's Drought Contingency Plan. Originally adopted in 1989 under state requirements, the plan is intended to help preserve and extend water supplies during drought conditions and includes strategies for temporary supply and demand management.
Since the plan's adoption, the BRA has only entered Stage 4, the highest level, once due to the drought, and that was for those whose water supply came from Lake Proctor and lasted about six months at the beginning of 2015.
Currently, Stage 1 Drought Watch remains in effect for most of the reservoirs and reservoir systems within the BRA Water Supply System, excluding Lake Granger and Lake Somerville. Cities, industry, agriculture, and mining groups that receive water from these reservoirs are asked to implement their drought contingency plans and reduce usage by 5%.
While we need the rain, the BRA water supply system is in good shape heading into the summer.
"We’re monitoring drought. We’re looking to understand what the drought may mean in the future. But our reservoirs are in really good shape heading into the summer,” said BRA General Manager/CEO David Collinsworth.
What that means for your yard
So, we know it’s hot and it might not rain soon, so what’s next?
Why not take this opportunity to revisit your yard situation.
Perhaps instead of purchasing whatever flower or plant looks the prettiest at your local nursery, consider investing the planning time and money in creating a drought-tolerant garden. That’s right. You can design your landscape to be drought tolerant.
It’s a perfect idea for Texas.
Don’t be intimidated if that seems out of your skill range. Planning goes a long way in ensuring you create a beautiful water-wise garden. And there are websites that can help you determine which plants will work best for your area, including this one:
Xeriscaping is another way to cultivate a gorgeous landscape that can withstand Texas’ dry periods and scorching heat. That doesn’t mean only planting cacti. A Xeriscaped garden doesn’t need much water beyond what the natural climate provides, and that’s a move with environmental and financial benefits.
It’s not just what plants you choose that makes an efficient Xeriscaped yard, but the installation of an efficient irrigation method. Soaker and drip hoses release water directly to the base of the plant, preventing the loss of water through evaporation than normal sprinklers allow.
Don’t forget to check and see if your city or county offers rebates. Many offer rebates for different rainscaping measures, rainwater collection, water-wise landscaping and more. It’s all about the preparation.
Small changes can make big differences.
Pool your resources
Whether you enjoy having the backyard pool all to yourself or having all your friends over for an epic pool party, you can help make a difference when it comes to the local water supply.
Use that pool cover. Pool covers help slow evaporation from your pool. Test it yourself. Mark the side of the pool’s water level and recheck the level in a week. Conservation today helps prevent worsening water supply availability and the dreaded city mandates requiring homeowners not to refill their pools due to drought.
Since the wind increases evaporation loss, install windbreaks around the pool – that can look like drought-friendly plants, fences, or trees.
Efficiency in all the ways we use water helps get us through a drought.
Lakeside homeowner tips
Sometimes during droughts, lakeside homeowners take the opportunity of low lake levels to do a little home improvement while water levels are lower.
A Residential Improvement Permit allows lakeside property owners to make improvements to the area adjacent to their property, including constructing a retaining wall along the shoreline, dredging the lake bottom under a dock, removing stumps from the lake bottom and performing maintenance to an existing private boat ramp.
Depending on your project, additional approvals may be required from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or the Texas Parks and Wildlife. Stump and sand removal is generally limited to areas immediately in the vicinity of the requestors' on-water facility.
For information specific to your property, contact the lake office:
- Possum Kingdom Lake 940-779-2321
- Lake Granbury 817-573-3212
- Lake Limestone 903-529-2141
And don’t forget to keep an eye on the lake level as drought impacts water supply reservoirs across the state. Don’t be caught off guard leaving your boat hanging high without water below it. Be prepared and remove any watercraft before it becomes too difficult to do so.
And remember, the lake will refill. It’s a cycle. Rain will eventually fall, and the reservoirs will refill as they have in years past.
Increase risk of wildfires
Unfortunately, drought increases the probability of wildfires and the rate of fire spreading.
“When combined with very low precipitation and snowpack, extreme heat can lead to decreased streamflow, dry soils, and large-scale tree deaths. These conditions create increased potential for extreme wildfires that spread rapidly, burn with more severity, and are costly to suppress.” – Drought.gov
As a homeowner, you can take steps to help protect your property. The Texas A&M Forest Service recommends:
- Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers.
- Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles – anything that can burn. Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches.
- Keep lawns and native grasses mowed to a height of four inches.
- Avoid burning trash, leaves and brush on dry, windy days.
- Pay attention to burn bans.
There are also a number of ways to improve your home with fire-resistant materials. While you may not be able to accomplish all the recommendations, each step increases a home’s chance of survival. Check out all the recommendations here.
Drought is part of Texas’ normal water cycle, as history has demonstrated, so make sure to bookmark this Drought Survival Kit from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.