Texas Water Development Board -- A Summer that Sizzled, September 2018
Texas ranks first among states for the variety and frequency of its natural disasters. While tornadoes, hailstorms, floods, and wildfires can occur unexpectedly, another type of disaster operates by stealth. It creeps in slowly and takes months to fully form and deliver a punishing strike. It’s the dreaded D word—drought.
Closing out the summer of 2018, Texans can lay claim to living through yet another prolonged dry spell, one that has lasted a year so far. With droughts, it’s hard to know when one will begin and even harder to predict when it will end.
Ask old timers who lived through the drought of 1950–1957, the longest drought in the state’s recorded history. When rain all but disappeared, everyone assumed the following year would bring thirst-quenching showers and restore normalcy. For years the agonizing wait continued as farms were shuttered and church groups prayed for clouds to appear and wash away the communities’ woes.
Lakes and rivers dried up; farmers gave up planting and watched livestock die or be hauled to market. Strict water rationing was enacted, and some cities had no choice but to truck in drinking water from Oklahoma. Of the 254 counties, all but 10 were declared federal disaster areas.
Today’s Texans look at the 2011–2014 drought as the worst of modern times. In some ways it rivaled the 1950s, not in length but 2011 was the worst one-year drought since record keeping began in 1895. It also brought the hottest temperatures seen up to that time. In 2011, 100 percent of the state was in drought; even worse, 75 percent was classified as exceptional drought, the direst category.
The drought of 2018 has been rough with record-breaking temperatures and only sporadic rain, but conditions are still less severe than in 2011. At the end of August 2018, 62 percent of the state was in drought, and only 1 percent in exceptional drought.
As the drought progressed this summer, the TWDB continuously monitored water supply reservoir levels, the drinking water source for many Texas communities. Overall statewide water supply storage was only 75 percent of capacity at the end of August—not quite as serious as the end of August 2011 value of 65 percent. In 2011 drought was so bad that reservoir levels dropped below 60 percent that fall. As drought continued in following years, statewide reservoir levels did not return to normal until July 2015.
But for some communities, the water levels this summer have been extremely low. The reservoirs near San Angelo never completely recovered from the 2011–2014 drought; the city’s largest reservoir, O.H. Ivie Reservoir, was less than 14 percent full at the end of August 2018. Lake Travis in Central Texas was 62 percent full, and Choke Canyon, which supplies water to Corpus Christi, was at 24 percent, its lowest August level since the reservoir filled for the first time.
Although less severe than 2011, the current drought has taken a toll. Almost 1,100 of the state’s 4,549 public water systems were dealing with water limitations at the end of August, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Aquifers and water wells have been in steady decline. Many boat ramps closed as lake levels dropped. Homeowners found it difficult to keep lawns and gardens going, and pecan trees in some areas began dropping pecans early.
Farmers and ranchers are usually the first to feel the ill effects of unrelenting heat and low precipitation. Even with 2018’s occasional rains, dryland farms had trouble maintaining crops. With hay supplies dwindling and stock ponds running low, many producers resorted to importing hay or reducing herd numbers.
Repeating a pattern that is all too common in Texas, the 2018 drought began on the heels of a flood, which was caused by Hurricane Harvey, the most damaging hurricane to roar onto the Texas coast. The Category 4 storm first engulfed the Rockport area on Aug. 25, 2017, and then meandered for days setting off catastrophic flooding in Houston and Beaumont. By mid-September, however, dry conditions were setting into many regions.
Similarly, the 2011–2014 drought began soon after Tropical Storm Hermine, which drenched several Texas regions and spawned tornadoes in September 2010. Within a month, statewide conditions were turning dry.
Without a doubt, to live in this state is to experience drought. Some of the worst droughts of the last century occurred in 1917–1918, 1925, 1930–1936, 1950–1957, 1971 and 2011–2014.
Will the drought of 2018 join that list? Forecasters are hoping the return this fall of the El Niño oceanic weather pattern will bring decent rain. But as we’ve experienced before and no doubt will again, drought can lurk behind even the wettest weather. That’s why it is so important that we use water wisely and conserve even in years of normal temperatures and rainfall.