Highest temperatures still to come

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Triple-digit weather temperatures and a cracked landscape remind us of the drought conditions that persist in areas of the Brazos River basin. In stark contrast, the wetter-than-normal weather in June and early July and full reservoirs in the upper basin make us think drought conditions no longer exist.

On June 8, 2023, the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center (CPC) issued an El Niño advisory. El Niño is the warming of the ocean's surface and increased rainfall over the tropical Pacific Ocean.

NOAA predicts that El Niño could form during the summer of 2023 and persist through the winter of 2023-24, a good change as El Niño oftentimes brings rain during the fall and winter months. However, not all of the Brazos River basin is experiencing the positives from El Niño conditions. The Brazos River Basin has been experiencing drought conditions in 50% or more of the basin's 42,000 square miles since November 4, 2021. The last time the basin had zero drought was July 9, 2021.

According to NOAA data, the July-August-September (JAS) 2023 temperature outlook favors above-normal seasonal temperatures across most of the U.S., and precipitation probabilities are showing below-normal rainfall.

Following several extremely dry months, on August 17, 2022, a Stage 1 Drought Watch was declared for the entire BRA Water Supply System. It currently remains in a Stage 1 drought watch, which calls for a 5% reduction in water use. Lake Proctor is currently in a Stage 3 Drought Emergency which calls for a 20% reduction in water use.

Unlike 2022, the upper basin received an unusual amount of rain in June and early July, and the lower basin received significant rain in April and May. Meanwhile, the central basin has continued to see much less rain than normal and continued low lake levels.

Aaron Abel, BRA water services manager, warns, "If the central basin doesn't receive significant rain soon, Lake Proctor could move to Stage 4."

Though areas of the upper basin are doing well for this time of year, their positive status may not last.

"Possum Kingdom Lake and Lake Granbury reached full status for the first time since early fall of 2021," Abel explained.

John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist and director of the Southern Regional Climate Center at Texas A&M University commented, "Texas weather is difficult to predict, but summer months in Texas typically contain three ingredients: high pressure, hot temperatures, and dry conditions."

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"Long-term, we don't know what's going to happen with the rainfall amounts, but higher temperatures and greater intensity mean more runoff and less water soaking into the soil, so we'll have drier soils going forward," explains Nielsen-Gammon.

Most of the state has already recorded multiple days over 100 degrees. Nielsen-Gammon said he expected "the extreme heat to continue in the coming months and noted that the highest temperatures typically come in late July and August."

Nielsen-Gammon said high humidity and temperatures contributed to heat indexes well beyond 100 degrees. The dew point, the temperature at which dew forms, was around 70-75 degrees in Central Texas, which translates into an "icky" heat.

But the heat wave has also included a dry spell for much of the state, Nielsen-Gammon said. The same high-pressure system that kept the weather hot also kept thunderstorms away from most of the state. The heat quickly sapped topsoil moisture from previous rains in some areas of the state.

This drying down puts many areas at risk of returning to drought conditions following the earlier rains that had significantly reduced the amount of severely dry conditions, Nielsen-Gammon said. Dry conditions also contribute to higher temperatures because there is no evaporative cooling in the air.

"If we don't get a decent amount of rain in the next few weeks, we will see more vegetation turning brown and crops suffering," he said. "The Panhandle and East Texas have gotten enough rain, but the areas that are marginally out of drought are definitely at risk of slipping back."

What does this mean for the upper basin's now-full reservoirs? They won't stay full for long. "With higher-than-normal temperatures, increased water use, and evaporation rates, water storage will continue to decline, "Abel said

The recent heat wave produced "all-time" high temperatures and heat index records. NOAA recently declared that Earth had its hottest June on record. Since July is typically the hottest and driest month of the year in Texas, water conservation continues to be vitally important.

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Simple water conservation efforts can be taken around the home by doing the following:

  • Check toilets and faucets for leaks
  • Turn the water off when brushing your teeth
  • Take shorter showers
  • Use high-efficiency appliances
  • Follow local watering restrictions in your area
  • Make sure sprinkler systems heads are watering the lawn and not the driveway or sidewalk
  • Never water in the heat of the day when evaporation rates are highest

Currently, the Brazos River basin is experiencing 76% drought, and the water supply reservoirs within the BRA water supply system are at 79% full.

Whether the Brazos River basin ever sees El Niño conditions remains to be seen, so it's encouraged to remain diligent with water conservation efforts.