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Amount of Texas in extreme drought conditions is the highest in a decade

 A view of Alpine, Texas in early April. Much of the Big Bend region of Texas remains under extreme or even "exceptional" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio
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Marfa Public Radio
A view of Alpine, Texas in early April. Much of the Big Bend region of Texas remains under extreme or even "exceptional" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Despite some parts of Texas receiving rainfall earlier this month, it hasn’t been enough to ease concerns about a prolonged, nearly statewide drought.

More than half of Texas was in an elevated drought phase as of April 19 and conditions haven’t improved since. That’s despite recent precipitation, according to the Texas Water Development Board’s weekly update.

“Unfortunately, in areas already impacted by drought, drought intensified. The area of the state impacted by extreme or worse drought climbed to 54 percent, its largest value since February 2012,” the agency said.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said the current pattern began in September. Rainfall totals across Texas during that time were at least 50% below average.

“Almost none of the state [had] above normal rainfall over that period. In most of the state, we see less than three quarters of the normal amount. About a third of the state, or maybe 40% received, less than half,” said Nielsen-Gammon during an online presentation Wednesday. Additionally, he said large portions of West Texas “received less than a quarter of their normal amount of precipitation. When we're talking about eight months — two thirds of the year — that's a really serious drought.”[RL1]

It's not just lack of rain that’s exacerbating dry conditions, Nielsen-Gammon added.

“It's been relatively windy over the past month across Texas, which has enhanced evaporation when there's been water to evaporate,” he said. “Temperatures are also a potential concern, particularly in the area where we're seeing long-term warming temperatures.”

During the six-month period starting in November 2021, most of the state has been one to two degrees above normal. The current weather pattern is partly a result of La Niña conditions. La Niña is a weather pattern in the Pacific that impacts how wet or dry some parts of the world are. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said La Niña causes cooler weather in the Eastern Pacific, which means fewer rain clouds and less rainfall for the southwestern United States.

“About two winters out of three, Texas is below normal precipitation during La Niña,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

Climatologists are now looking to the next few months to see what, if any, relief Texas can expect.

“These next three months — the rest of April, May and June — appear to be huge as far as us getting out of this drought,” said Victor Murphy, National Weather Service Southern Region Climate program manager. “This is when it should rain. And if you get rainfall during your wettest time of year, you’re usually in pretty good shape. So there's a lot riding, quite honestly, these next two or three months.”

But Murphy added some parts of the state typically see their wettest months a bit later in the year. Those include El Paso and other areas of West Texas, where about half all rainfall occurs in the summer. The Brownsville and Corpus Christi areas usually experience their peak rainfall from August through October.

A prolonged dry period also means Texas’ agricultural sector should brace itself for the possibility of a sustained impact.

“More than 80% percent of the winter wheat crop in the state is rated poor to very poor at this point with the normal harvest season coming in up in a few months,” said Murphy. “It’s going to be very hard to get much recovery out of that. Even irrigated crops cost money to irrigate so the drier it is the more money you end up spending and eventually it becomes a money-losing proposition.”

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