After three years of relentless drought that has culled cattle herds, cooked crops and whacked water supplies, a glimmer of moisture across parts of Texas is giving water managers, ranchers and farmers hope that the state could be emerging from its second-worst drought in history.
“We are not out of it yet, but there has been a lot of improvement lately. Things are looking as good as we’ve seen in quite a while,” said State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.
“We still have 40 percent of the state in drought, but that’s an improvement, particularly in East Texas,” he said.
The dry line
The dividing line for bone-dry is Interstate 35, with areas to the east mostly recovered from the drought and much of West Texas, particularly the Panhandle, still parched, Nielsen-Gammon said.
About 43 percent of Texas is still in drought, the least since December 2010, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. A year ago, 97 percent of the state was in some category of drought.
Nearly three-quarters of the state remains abnormally dry, but that’s an improvement from the 99 percent recorded in July, when 45 percent of the state was mired in the extreme and exceptional drought categories.
Last week, less than 1 percent remained in exceptional drought, compared with 12 percent a year ago.
What hasn’t gone away is the drought’s impact on water supplies, said Dan Huckaby, a National Weather Service climate specialist in Fort Worth. He noted that statewide reservoir storage is at just 64 percent of capacity, virtually identical to a year ago.
“The rains have made a difference for agricultural sectors, but we haven’t seen much improvement in reservoir levels,” he said, adding that Dallas-Fort Worth was 6.74 inches below average for rainfall in 2013.
“That’s a lot of weather to make up. April and May will make the difference,” Huckaby said.
Reservoirs in the Tarrant Regional Water District’s system are at 72 percent capacity, down from 75 percent a year ago, said David Marshall, engineering services director.
“We’re seeing some improvement,” he said “We’re still way down on the west-side reservoirs, but we’re doing much better on the east.”
Marshall is optimistic about prospects for a rise in water levels.
“The outlook looks real favorable. I think we will see a whole lot of recovery by between now and April and May,” he said. “I expect we will hit above the 75 percent level before too long.”
Dipping below 75 percent of capacity triggered outdoor watering restrictions that resulted in about a 10 percent savings in usage over the summer, Marshall said.
“That’s remarkably good. To be really efficient, the restrictions have to be the new normal. Texas has only a finite water supply, and we’ve seen everyone become aware of the drought,” he said.
“I think a lot of folks understand now that if they water twice a week, they can still have a green yard and a good landscape,” he said, noting that Dallas has implemented year-round twice-a-week watering restrictions.
“We’re encouraging other cities to do the same thing,” Marshall said.
The recent rains have given a big boost to winter wheat, which is worth roughly $1 billion as a forage and grain crop, said Travis Miller, a drought specialist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
“Last year, we didn’t have a lot of wheat come up until January. We’re in great shape by comparison,” he said.
“We’ve got some great crops coming in North and Central Texas, but they are still struggling in the Panhandle, where there is no soil moisture to speak of. They are hurting up there,” Miller said.
But even with some rangeland improvement, drought-singed Texas ranchers won’t be coming off the fence soon when it comes to rebuilding Texas herds.
“Things are looking better. But herd levels are still down. We’re seeing some real caution on restocking,” said Eldon White, vice president of the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
The drought forced a huge reduction in Texas cattle, and the state herd remains at its lowest level since 1952, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
“People didn’t sell the land; they might have sold the cattle. We’re in the business of growing grass and, when the grass starts growing again, people will be buying cattle again,” he said.
“ Cautious optimism is an overused term, but I think that’s how you would describe most ranchers in the state,” he said.
“Cautiously hopeful,” is the view at the Bonds Ranch in Saginaw, said Missy Bonds, assistant manager.
“We were able to grow some grass this year; it’s in better shape than in a couple of years,” she said.
“But we are in worse shape when it comes to pond water. We’re still having to haul water to keep our tanks full,” Bonds said.
The Climate Prediction Center’s long-term drought outlook forecasts that where the drought is in place, it will persist through March.
Nielsen-Gammon said there are no strong indications in either direction for winter and spring precipitation.
But he’s seeing a promising, possibly wetter trend developing.
“The tropical Pacific tends to be trending more to warmer temperatures, so we might see El Niño next winter which could really help.”