Drought | StateImpact Texas
How Long Has the Current Drought Been Going On?
Texas is currently experiencing a severe drought, and has been for over a year. The drought began in October 2010 and continued through the winter with low rainfall and overall dry conditions. But the drought really intensified in the middle of 2011. The months from March through May, and then June through August all set records for low rainfall. The high temperatures over the summer months increased evaporation, further lowering river and lake levels.
The months since the drought began have been the driest on the books since record keeping in Texas began in 1895 – an average of only 11.1 inches of rain. The only comparable drought occurred during a ten-year period in the 1940’s and 50’s. In 1952 the combined level of reservoir-lakes Travis and Buchannan fell to 621,000 acre-feet, its lowest recorded point.
December rains were a temporary departure from the extreme drought, but they have hardly put a dent in the drought. Lake levels are still at a fraction of normal levels. According to the LCRA, the two reservoirs had a combined amount of 738,000 acre-feet at mid-January, but the level is falling as low rainfall continues.
What Are the Effects of the Drought?
The drought has helped fuel wildfires, ruined crops and put a real strain on the state’s electric grid.
Dry conditions fueled a series of wildfires across the state in early September. The most devastating, the Bastrop Complex Fire in Bastrop County, scorched over 34,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,300 homes.
All of this has affected a wide-range of industries in Texas. Economists estimate that the drought has cost farmers and ranchers upwards of $5.2 billion. Some farmers and ranchers have rented or leased parts of their properties to recreational hunters in an attempt to make up some of their lost profits. The price of hay has increased by 200% since the drought began. Since the price of feeding cattle has skyrocketed, ranchers are culling their herds, selling off large numbers of cattle in auctions to out-of-state buyers. Farmers are in similarly dire straits. Corn outputs fell by 40% in 2011 and peanut production is down as well. The lack of crops has created conditions forsevere dust storms across the western part of the state. Rice farmers may soon feel the strain of dwindling water resources. If combined lake levels fall to 600,000, the LCRA will cut off water supplies to farmers in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties as soon as this January.
Officials from ERCOT are also concerned. Nuclear, coal, and natural gas energy production all require large amounts of fresh water to cool equipment. High energy usage and scorching temperatures caused ERCOT to close one factory overnight during the height of the summer’s heat. Officials worry that another spring and summer with low rainfall could mean the closure of some power plants.
When Will the Drought End?
Estimates on when the drought will end vary widely. State Meteorologist George Bomar hopes the hot and dry La Nina weather cycle will abate after the spring. He says Texas suffered the worst drought in recorded state history in 2011 and a third La Nina cycle seems unlikely, near-normal rainfall should return for the summer.
State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon has stated in his report on the drought that the return of wetter weather could come as late as 3–15 years from now.
With no definitive end in sight, Texas lawmakers are looking towards ways to alleviate the drought. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has plans to create a desalination plant to be able to make use of brackish groundwater. El Paso already boasts the world’s largest inland desalination plant. This past legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring all future state buildings to have a rainwater collection system. There is also interest in expanding rainwater harvesting on private homes. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst has announced the Texas State Senate will meet in committees to discuss the drought’s impact on the state.
The drought, the extreme heat and the fires that came with it have made this an historic year for Texas. And it will leave a mark that will be felt long after the drought is over: trees will continue to die from stress, roads will continue to break apart, and food prices will continue to fluctuate.