Recent storms in Texas brought some long-awaited relief to the nation's most drought-stricken state, but the brutal dry spell is far from over as it drags into its third year.
About 16 percent of the state — all in the southern and central parts of Texas — is classified under the most extreme two categories of drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest drought monitor map released Thursday. That's down from last week's 25 percent, but still well above 2.4 percent from a year ago. A small section of Hawaii is the only other U.S. area classified as under severe drought.
Storms dumped more than a foot of rain in some of the hardest-hit Texas drought areas over the past week or so, but the land is so dry that the water was mostly just sucked up instead of making its way into lakes, rivers and creeks.
"In the core of the drought area they've gotten only about half the normal rainfall the entire year for two years," said Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. "They've effectively missed an entire year's worth of rainfall."
The drought that began in September 2007 has cost an estimated $3.6 billion in crop and livestock losses in the nation's No. 2 agriculture state. It has dried up waterways, forced more than 340 public water systems to restrict water use and killed hundreds of thousands of trees. It's been declared the driest 24-month period in recorded history in parts of the state and the worst drought in history in a handful of counties.
An unusually hot summer compounded the problems. San Antonio had 59 days over 100 degrees, shattering the record of 36. Austin had 68 days over 100, one shy of the record set in 1925.
The recent storms helped — with parts of San Antonio getting 8 inches of rain, Austin getting 6 inches and the nearby Texas Hill Country about 15 inches — but Pat McDonald of the National Weather Service said that still leaves the area at 15-25 inches below normal for the year.
Herds still being culled
The rain came too late to help many farmers and ranchers. Cattle herds are already being culled because there's not enough grass to graze on, and the dry summer doomed many crop yields in the leading U.S. cotton-producing state.
"Two weeks in the middle of August with 100-plus degree temperatures pretty much finished out our dryland crop for us," Todd Baughman, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension agronomist said in the weekly crop report. He said the crop outlook was outstanding before August but now appears just average.
It'll take several more months of above normal rainfall for Texas to emerge from the drought, officials said.
Bob Rose, a meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority, said more rain is crucial to the two major reservoirs along the Colorado River that provide drinking water for more than 1 million people and are popular boating and swimming spots.
The recent storms only added about a foot to Lake Travis, which is still down 50 feet and is at its third-lowest level ever. Lake Buchanan didn't get any noticeable increase because the parched ground sucked up the moisture before it could run off into creeks and streams, Rose said.
"To bring our lakes back to full, we're estimating we need between 15 and 20 inches of rain," he said.
The area typically gets just under 7 inches of rain in October and November but has gotten less than half that the past two years. Rose said much higher totals are possible because of the El Nino system in the Pacific Ocean that typically is followed by heavier Texas rains in the fall.
If that doesn't happen, there could be even tighter water restrictions during the hotter months of the third year of the drought, Rose said.
"There's just a lot riding on the amount of rain we get in this fall and winter period," he said.