Drought Conditions Continue to Worsen

After a mostly dry winter, spring is finally here, but without significant rainfall. Higher temperatures and a lack of precipitation are still in the forecast for spring and summer, with drought conditions expected to continue throughout Texas.

This year's winter stood by its forecasted climate and was drier and warmer than normal due to persistent La Niña conditions. According to the Southern Region's Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook, the region of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee experienced the 21st driest winter on record, with an average of 6.14 inches of precipitation.

And things don't look like they'll be changing much for the spring and summer. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecasts predict that above-normal temperatures will continue in Texas through June.

"The seasonal temperature outlook from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center calls for enhanced chances of above-normal temperatures," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in its March Southern Region Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook. "Above-normal

temperatures are most likely in West Texas, where the outlook calls for a 50%-60% chance that temperatures will rank among the warmest third of recent historical temperatures."

While temperatures are expected to remain high, the precipitation levels are estimated to be below average.

"The seasonal precipitation outlook features enhanced chances of drier than normal conditions," the report said. "In most of Texas and half of Oklahoma, there is a 40%-50% chance that precipitation will rank among the lowest third of recent historical precipitation totals."

With a couple of months' worth of high heat and low precipitation levels, Texas' drought conditions have continued to expand and will continue to increase in the drought category this spring.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that as of April 8, about 95.1% of Texas was experiencing abnormally dry conditions, 84.7% was experiencing moderate drought, 71.5% was experiencing severe drought, 40.6% was experiencing extreme drought, and 9.8% was experiencing exceptional drought. This means more than 17 million Texans are currently affected by drought.

Exceptional drought is the highest level of drought, with impacts such as widespread crop loss, extreme sensitivity to fire danger, and more. The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook by the Climate Prediction Center shows that these drought conditions will persist through the summer and develop in some areas of the state.

The cause for these dry and hot conditions can be attributed to the continued La Niña conditions that are expected to stay through this summer, according to the latest forecast by NWS Climate Prediction Center. The recurrent weather pattern in the central and eastern tropical Pacific often influences whether Texas will enjoy heavy rainfall or prolonged drought conditions. 

A La Niña forms when waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean are much cooler than normal, resulting in warmer and drier weather. While the La Niña pattern is expected to remain through the summer, the forecast states there is a 40-50% chance that it may transition to ENSO-neutral after summer.

"By summer, La Niña probably goes away, and the strong influence of La Niña on our weather patterns definitely goes away," said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state's climatologist and professor at Texas A & M University. "When things are this dry so far, it's important to plan for what might happen if things stay dry. Obviously, those plans needed to be made back when things were wet, so now is time to get ready to implement those plans. The closer we get to summer, though, the more unpredictable the seasonal conditions become."

Regardless of the continuation of the heat and low precipitation levels, the Brazos River Authority's water supply system remains in relatively good shape heading into 2022. As of April 13, the BRA system is 93% full. However, on March 17, the BRA declared a Stage 1 – Drought Watch for several reservoirs and reservoir systems within the BRA water supply system.

The declaration came after multiple areas throughout the basin met triggers set within the BRA Drought Contingency Plan associated with the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI), a suite of indicators developed by the U.S. Weather Bureau. Declaration of the Stage 1 Drought Watch requires those who receive water from the affected reservoirs decrease their water use by 5 percent.

With the return of dry conditions, the BRA again began publishing two-month reservoir projections that are updated at the beginning of each month and will continue until drought conditions decrease.

The BRA's monthly reservoir projections illustrate reservoir capacity and drawdown potential. The first chart depicts a "worst-case scenario" with lake levels under extremely dry conditions with minimum inflows and high evaporation levels. The second chart projects lake levels under average conditions. You can view the most recent charts here, along with the weekly drought monitor for the Brazos River basin.

Current forecasts call for low levels of precipitation during the typically rainy months here in Texas, which will contribute to the drought's expansion and persistence.

"May and June are typically the wettest months of the year. Dry weather is likely through May, which means problems for farmers and ranchers if that comes to pass," Nielsen-Gammon said. "Also, the drier things get, the hotter the summer gets. Dry winters and springs add about two degrees to summer temperatures. In 2011, when everything was ridiculously dry, we were about five degrees above normal. Also, dry soils in this part of the country actually reduce future precipitation amount."

Wildfires are also becoming a statewide issue without drought relief. While Texans don't have much control over drought, we can all do our part to prevent wildfires from happening.

  • Always put used cooled coals from your grill into a metal container before walking away.
  • Never play with matches or lighters, especially outside.
  • Watch your campfire (but check to see if there is a burn ban in your county) and make sure your campfire is completely out before leaving
  • Be sure chains and other metal parts aren't dragging from your vehicle, as they throw sparks.
  • Sparks from lawnmowers and power equipment can start wildfires! Be careful on hot, dry days and get your equipment checked regularly.

Even with precautions, it's important to stay prepared for potentially severe weather during all seasons. A general guideline to follow for any type of extreme weather preparation is to make an emergency plan with your family, build a disaster kit and connect with emergency notification systems. You can learn more about wireless emergency alerts here.

To keep up to date with real-time data on rainfall, streamflow, and reservoir elevations within the Brazos River basin, click here.