Drought conditions persist across much of Texas, but fall should bring some relief

Rain chances increase this month ahead of a wetter-than-normal winter forecast thanks to El Niño.

By Rhonda Fanning & David BrownOctober 3, 2023 3:44 pm,

When the rains came to Texas in May and June, there were high hopes that summer would be more tolerable than it it turned out to be: the second hottest summer on record.

But it wasn’t just the heat doing so much widespread damage – it was the lack of water as well. Right now, about 24 million Texans are living through some level of drought, with nearly 40% of the state experiencing drought at its most severe levels, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

John Nielsen-Gammon, a regents professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University who also serves as the state climatologist, joined the Standard to share more about the state’s current status and what to expect this fall.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What is the status of the drought as it stands? 

John Nielsen-Gammon: Oh, there’s still a good amount of drought across the state of Texas. There are parts of the state that are still in exceptional drought. Main problems right now are from Central Texas down toward Southeast Texas and Louisiana border and then some areas stretching north up to the Red River and then parts of West Texas and South Texas. So almost every corner of the state.

When you say ‘exceptional drought,’ is that just a way that you describe it, or is that a term of art there? 

Yeah, it’s a category. It’s the worst category in the U.S. Drought Monitor, corresponds to a drought that ought to only happen once every 50 years or so.

So in this case, many places in Texas had their driest summer on record, on top of their hottest summer on record. And so that meant that short-term drought conditions were exceptionally bad, and they haven’t recovered all that much over the past month.

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Let’s talk about the impact of this exceptional drought on Texas. I know that a lot of people have seen lake levels fall over the past year or so. 

Yeah, there are lakes in Central Texas like, Stillhouse Hollow and Belton, that are lower than they’ve ever been. The lakes along the Rio Grande are running very low also. Other areas are not all that unusually low, so to speak. The problem is the two areas I mentioned were dry and low before the summer started. So having a dry summer just made things worse there.

And other parts of West Texas levels are normally low, so they’ve just dropped a little bit. And East Texas, even though it’s dry, there’s been enough rain that the reservoirs themselves have been doing okay, really. So we’re not seeing the big water supply impacts in most of the state. They’re concentrated around Central Texas, where the drought’s been longer lasting.

Of course, for folks involved in agriculture, this has been really traumatic, especially for cotton, right?

Yeah, the cotton crop tends to go in the ground later and mature later than things like corn or sorghum. And so the early season crops did great with all the rain we had back in April and early May, but then it dried out since then.

And so cotton, being late maturing, had to do the bulk of its growing in the absence of much rain whatsoever. So as a result of that, yeah, cotton has been probably more heavily impacted than any of the other crops in the area.

I think there’s been some talk about the drought perhaps easing this fall. We might see more rain as we move through October and November. That line up with what you’re hearing?

Well, it probably will. There’s nothing that’s pointing toward conditions going forward being especially dry. It looks like we’ll get some relief from the extreme heat starting around Thursday or so when a bit of a cold front comes through – get us to near normal anyway, as opposed to above normal.

But then there’s better chances for rain later on in October. And then over the longer term, we’ve got a fairly strong El Niño in place in the tropical Pacific, which tends to mean wetter-than-normal conditions from November through March. So we’re hoping for some more extended relief during that period.

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