Texas gets even drier in 'unprecedented' drought

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

How dry is it in Texas? Nearly 94 percent of the state was under "extreme" or "exceptional" drought levels this week, up 2 percent on last week, the U.S. government said Thursday.

While some neighbors got rain relief in recent days, Texas remained the epicenter of the record-breaking drought, with climate data from the U.S. Drought Monitor showing the state suffering its driest 10 months ever in over a century of data.

"This is unprecedented territory, as the precipitation deficits mount, and triple-digit temperatures continue to increase water demand," the service said in its weekly report.

Texas was told not to expect any near-term relief.

"Texas will continue to be 'high and dry', with little drought relief in sight over the next week," the report stated.

Oklahoma, Corn Belt also hit
Since January, Texas has received only 40 percent of its normal rainfall, according to the National Weather Service.

Oklahoma also saw conditions worsen, with extreme and exceptional drought now spread through nearly 93 percent of the state, up from 88 percent.

The Drought Monitor noted that the drought also spread into new areas over the last week.

The Corn Belt states of South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana saw drought develop quickly as the important corn-growing region got only spotty rainfall amid the high heat, it stated.

Abnormal dryness intensified to moderate drought in those areas, according to the report.

The drought and triple-digit temperatures have broken numerous records and left the southern Plains and Mississippi Valley struggling to meet demand for power and water, while causing billions of dollars in damage to crops and livestock.

Weather experts attribute the drought to last year's La Nina, the weather anomaly that is typically followed by about a 10 percent drop in precipitation.

Texas is officially in the midst of its second-worst drought on record.

National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy said Tuesday that this year's drought has now surpassed one that ended in 1918 as the second-driest period in the state.

Texas' most severe overall drought remains one that persisted from 1950-1957. The state climatologist last week declared the current drought the state's most severe one-year drought on record.

Since January, Texas has only gotten about 6 inches of rain, compared to a norm of about 13 inches. In July, it saw less than an inch of rain statewide in July.

A newly updated weather map shows the drought holding firm through at least October, and a new La Nina could form later this year, which would likely extend the drought into at least early 2012.

At least 7 Texas reservoirs empty
Already, some Texas rivers and lakes are at lows not seen since the 1950s drought. And in some cases, bodies of water are at their lowest points ever, said Joseph Capesius, chief of the Austin field unit for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Of the state's 3,700 streams, 15 major rivers and more than 200 reservoirs, at least seven reservoirs are effectively empty and more than half of the streams and rivers are at below normal flow rates.

Jeff Bonner, Wildlife Biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, looks over the banks of the almost completely dried up Canadian River, in Hemphill County Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011 in Amarillo, Texas. A devastating drought sweeping across Texas is turning rivers into sand, creeks into mud, springs into mere trickles and lakes into large puddles, destroying habitats and ecosystems crucial to the survival of hundreds of wildlife and plant species. Now, with the second-worst drought in Lone Star State history expected to stick around for at least a year, biologists say the impacts on those habitats will be so severe and widespread they will last for years after the drought ends. (AP Photo/Michael Norris) Michael Norris / Fr170053 AP

The drought will most immediately cause fish to die and such kills have already happened in parts of the state, including not far from the Canadian River, a normally flowing river in the Panhandle that in some places is barely a puddle fed by a drought-taxed spring.

In West Texas, O.C. Fisher Lake has been so depleted that fish have died from a lack of oxygen and bacteria has turned the remaining water red.

Without water, animals struggle with thirst. Few plants grow.

Without plants, there are fewer insects. No insects result in low seed production. The animals that rely on seeds and plants for nutrition — from birds to deer and antelope — have low reproduction.

Predators that rely on those animals as a food source remain hungry as well, and they reproduce less.

"So there's a domino effect that goes out in however many more branches than you can actually ever keep count of," said Jeff Bonner, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The long-term impact from the drought will cross state lines and country borders because Texas is so large and its ecosystems diverse.

For example, birds that migrate south in the winter will find little food and water this year in Texas so they will have to fly even farther south and expend more energy. As a result, they could reproduce less.

Some of those birds, such as the colorful painted bunting, often fly to Central America for part of the year where there has been a lot of rain and more insects than usual. But because of the drought in Texas and the Plains, there may not be enough birds to consume the insects, Bonner said.

"Now, what happens?" Bonner said. "Continentally speaking, this big of an area not getting enough water can impact places far and wide."