Current drought could become worst ever, state climatologist says

Nov 10, 2011 | Austin American-Statesman by Farzad Mashhood | Related Press

Current drought could become worst ever, state climatologist says
By Farzad Mashhood


Texas could be in the midst of a drought the history books have never seen, meaning water planners need to prepare for worse than what they’ve seen, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said Thursday.

The current drought could last until 2020, because the region’s climate is in the middle of a 20- to 40-year dry phase, Nielsen-Gammon said.

Water planners, including state agencies and river authorities, have long since made water plans based on the drought of record, a nearly 10-year dry spell in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Sooner or later there will be a drought that’s worse” (than the drought of record), Nielsen-Gammon said. “The planning needs to be able to cover the bases not just for the worst that we’ve seen but also have a plan going forward in case conditions become worse than that.”

The state’s water development board, which conducts long-term water planning, declined to comment on whether the benchmark should be raised to accommodate worse droughts than the drought of record.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, Austin’s primary water provider, said through a spokeswoman that it sticks to the water development board’s methods. “If conditions change and there is a new drought of record, we will use that as the new standard,” LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said in an email.

The LCRA, which recently announced a plan that would reduce or eliminate water to rice farmers if faced with a worsened drought, forecasts the current drought could be declared the worst on record by spring.

The entire state is in some form of drought, with more than 85 percent in an exceptional drought, the worst form, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Lake Travis is at 629.15 feet above mean sea level, more than 35 feet below the September average of 664.70 feet, with Austin having the driest October-to-August period on record.

“Basically, we’ve gone from a period in the ’80s and ’90s when we had a lot of rain … to a dry period that has been around for about 10 years,” he said.

In the past decade, Texas has faced several tough years of drought, resulting in billions of dollars in losses to agriculture. Five of the past seven years, Nielsen-Gammon said, have been drought years.

However, there is no reliable predictor for long-term drought, he said. The LCRA’s chief meteorologist, Bob Rose, agreed, saying things could change as early as next year.

“As we get into spring, the La Niña-El Niño thing changes pretty quickly,” said Rose, explaining the expected La Niña pattern in 2012 will be considerably weaker than this year’s.

“We could get a more normal pattern of rain in the springtime,” Rose said.

Regardless of whether this current drought will last for the next few months or almost a decade, Rose and Nielsen-Gammon both said the state should expect a generally drier climate.

“I think he (Nielsen-Gammon) is on to something that, yeah, we are going to see more droughts (in the next decade),” Rose said. But, “nobody can predict a multiyear drought.”

Rising global temperatures over the past 30 years could also play a role in exacerbating a continued drought, Nielsen-Gammon said. As drought continues and temperatures rise, water on reservoirs evaporate faster and plants need more water to survive, he said.

This year’s drought was estimated to have caused $5.2 billion in agricultural losses through August.

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