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John Nielsen-Gammon

From Harvey to drought

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The Texas Panhandle has become ground zero in a drought that has crept into much of the state just five months after Hurricane Harvey — including areas that suffered massive flooding during the storm.

More than 40 percent of Texas is now in a moderate to severe drought, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s compared to 4 percent on Aug. 29, a few days after Harvey slammed into the South Texas coast.

And dry conditions are expected to worsen over the coming months.

“As soon as Hurricane Harvey cleared Texas, then we almost immediately started going into the next drought,” said Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist for the Texas Water Development Board.

August was the wettest year in the state in 124 years, but every month since then — aside from December — has been considerably dry, he said.

Part of Beaumont, which saw nearly 50 inches of rain when Harvey stalled over southeast Texas as a tropical storm, is now in a moderate drought. And all of the city is considered “abnormally dry,” according to the drought monitor.

Drought conditions are particularly bad in North Texas and especially in the Panhandle, where all 26 of the region’s counties are in a severe to extreme drought and most have burn bans in effect. The outdoor fire restrictions don’t stop there, though: They’re in effect in more than one-third of Texas’ 254 counties, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Two bits of good news here. One is that Harris County is completely out of the drought zone, and two is that the longer-range forecast is for more normal rainfall beginning in May. One hopes that means a non-blistering summer. Be that as it may, this is what normal looks like now, one extreme to another. Maybe we should take climate change just a wee bit more seriously, you know, to try and cope better with this? Just a thought.

The 100-year-storm isn’t what it used to be

They’re bigger.

More than three months after Hurricane Harvey battered southeast Texas with unprecedented and costly flooding, an analysis of rainfall trends across Texas suggests the standards used to develop floodplain regulations, map flood zones and design flood control projects routinely underestimate the severity of the Houston area’s downpours.

That analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which looked at rainfall data stretching back decades, up to and including Harvey, shows the amount of rain that defines a “100-year storm” – one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year – has risen by 3 to 5 inches in Harris County since the last estimates were put in place in 2002.

Instead of expecting 12 to 14 inches in a day during a 100-year storm, the data shows the county should expect 15 to 18 inches.

A higher rainfall estimate for a 100-year storm means developers would need to design subdivisions and strip malls to compensate for higher runoff, and more existing residential and business properties would be included in new floodplain maps that drive insurance costs and development regulations.

“We design our infrastructure and our society and homes to be resilient to a certain level of risk,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University. “Having updated, more accurate numbers means that we’re better able to do that, and the risk we’re undertaking matches the risk we’re designing for.”

[…]

The preliminary data released last week includes estimates across Texas. A broad swath of Texas, stretching from Beaumont and Port Arthur, across Austin and the middle of the state, and all the way to Del Rio, indicates rainfall greater than that modeled during the 1961 study. In some parts of west Texas, the data shows the amount of rainfall indicating a 100-year storm should actually be lower than current standards.

St. Laurent said the increase in the 100-year storm severity for the Houston area could be attributed in part to the several severe storms the region had experienced since 2002. NOAA included data from Harvey in its analysis.

“The additional decade or two of data have some significantly high rainfall events that definitely contribute to higher precipitation estimates,” he said.

Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said any time officials have more data with which to work, estimates change, particularly when including events like the Tax Day flood and Harvey. The new estimates, he added, also reflect a changing climate.

“You wouldn’t want to look at an individual location and say that all of the change there is due to climate change,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “But if you look at the state as a whole, it seems that the increases have outnumbered the decreases, at least in the current draft. So, that’s some combination of longer-term natural variability and climate change that’s doing that.”

I don’t have much to add to this. As a region, we seem to be internalizing the notion that we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done, with regard to development and flood mitigation. That’s good and necessary and long overdue. The much bigger question is whether we are internalizing the fact that climate change is a big part of the reason why we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done, and that means we can’t keep polluting and emitting carbon as before. That’s a question for more than just the region, or for the state. I think – I hope – our region is up to our part of the task. Whether our state and our country are remains to be seen, but the track record of the powers that are now in charge is not encouraging. That needs to be part of the discussion, not just in the 2018 campaign but in every campaign after 2018 as well.

Can our dams handle the load?

Pretty important question, wouldn’t you say?

The state climatologist is warning that Texas dams will become less able to withstand extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, which are expected to occur more frequently as the earth’s atmosphere and oceans warm in coming years.

Dams are designed with a wide margin of safety and are meant to withstand extreme, worst-case scenarios that are never expected to happen. But what stunned state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon and other weather experts was that Harvey exceeded or matched the preposterous amounts of rainfall that dams in Texas are built to hold back.

“The probable maximum precipitation amount should never be reached,” said Tye Parzybok, the chief meteorologist at MetStat, a Colorado-based company that helped Texas calculate the rainfall amounts. “It should never get close to it.”

After Harvey, dam regulators will have to recalculate the maximum amount of water that dams should be capable of holding back, said Nielsen-Gammon. Climate change means that powerful storms are bringing vastly more rain than they did a century ago, he said.

“I’m not saying they’re unsafe,” said Nielsen-Gammon of Texas’ dams. “They will be less safe than they were designed to be.”

On the one hand, Harvey was an extremely unlikely event; by some estimates, a one in 500,000 year event. Nobody plans for that, and for good reason. On the other hand, if it could happen once it could happen again, and the consequences of a dam failure would be catastrophic. Even before Harvey, it was the case that the capacity of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs was declining due to the buildup of dirt and sediment over the years. Surely this is something that can be addressed.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, is calling for the replacement of the aging Addicks and Barker dams that spilled over during Hurricane Harvey.

“As we recover and rebuild from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, it is crucial that we also learn from this catastrophic storm and prepare for the next one,” she said in a statement. “A critical takeaway is that our infrastructure is ill-prepared for the ferocity of thousand-year weather events and record-breaking rainfall.”

[…]

Jackson Lee, a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, is pushing provisions in the Energy and Water Appropriations Act that would provide $3 million to fund the Army Corps of Engineers’ Houston Regional Watershed Assessment Flood Risk Management Feasibility study, as well as $100 million for flood control infrastructure.

Seems like a reasonable approach to take. What do other members of Congress that represent the Houston area, as well as our two Senators, think of this? Before you answer that, consider this:

“Addicks and Barker were not designed to impound large pools behind them for an extended period of time,” an Army Corps official wrote in a 2011 email, which was made public through a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against the Corps over a road project near the reservoirs. “These larger and longer lasting pools … [are] increasing the threat to both dams.”

Another Corps document, this one from 2010, shows that the agency was using terms like “risk of catastrophic failure” for the dams for flood events much smaller than what Houston experienced during Harvey.

That 2010 “interim reservoir control action plan” sets what it calls “maximum pool” levels for Addicks and Barker at elevations well under 100 feet, levels that could be expected during a 25-year storm — which has a 4 percent chance of occurring in any given year. Such a storm is about 30 times smaller than the rains generated by Harvey.

“The purpose of this … is to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure by [releasing water from the dams] quicker and increasing embankment surveillance,” the document says, adding that at 25-year levels, the dams “need to get additional attention.”

The document, which also became part of the 2011 Sierra Club lawsuit against the Army Corps, doesn’t specify what the true risk of dam failure might be at such levels. It also doesn’t say what exact actions the Army Corps would take when water reached that point.

[…]

“I think that the documents, and I think that the issues, are clear,” said Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental lawyer who filed the Sierra Club lawsuit. “The consequences of failure are horrific, and it would be truly frightening to the public if they really knew what the worst-case scenario looked like.”

Blackburn said the failure of the Army Corps to make the 2010 document public is just one example of the agency’s hesitance to address the risk of a dam breach.

“I think they have not wanted to have an honest conversation about it, for some reason.”

Matthew Zeve, the Harris County Flood Control District’s director of operations, said he had not seen the 2010 document before the Tribune sent him a copy. But he said he didn’t think the document expressed concern about the dams actually failing at such low water levels but rather indicated a “trigger” for when the agency should be continuously monitoring the dams and doing whatever it can to diminish risk.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, we think it’s going to fail,’” he said, stressing that he was not speaking for the Corps but offering his personal interpretation of the document.

Yeah, that’s not very reassuring. Let’s start investing in better flood mitigation infrastructure, shall we?

Climate change will not be kind to Houston

It could be even worse, if that’s any consolation, but it will be bad as things are going now.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5105566

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5105566

Houston’s brutally hot summers, persistent humidity, floods and hurricanes never have been much of a selling point. It’s been something to endure.

In 50 years, scientists predict Houston’s climate will look a lot like what it does today, but amplified – more hot days, more downpours, more hurricanes, and more sea-level rise.

The frequency and ferocity of those events is the subject of scientific debate. But make no mistake: Climate change will alter Houston over the next century.

“I think the last year gave us a pretty good insight into the next decade,” said Gavin Dillingham, a Houston Advanced Research Center scientist working with the city to develop a sustainability plan. “There’s going to be significantly more flooding, summers that last longer, more vector-borne diseases. Zika could be just the beginning.”

The federal government’s most recent national climate assessment paints a rather grim portrait of Texas by 2100: a increase in the number of days over 100 degrees and more drought, particularly for West and North Texas.

Likewise, oceans are expected to continue to warm, adding fuel to potential hurricanes that come into the Gulf of Mexico.

Presumably, Houston will have some kind of hurricane protection system in place in 50 years, but that seems far from certain given the current pace of the “coastal spine” project. To better protect the Houston-Galveston area, the concept involves combining barriers and gates to lessen the effects of storm surge. For example, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Greater New Orleans Barrier was built to protect the city from storm surge.

Either way, climate science now suggests there will be less of the coast to protect in the future due to sea level rise. By 2100, estimates range for sea levels to increase on the Texas coast anywhere from a foot and half to 6 feet. At five feet, roughly 68 percent of Galveston would be underwater.

[…]

So just how hot will Houston get in the future?

The good news is Houston always will enjoy breezes from the Gulf of Mexico. The bad news is Houston is Houston.

“It will be warmer,” said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon when asked what Houston might be like in 50 years. “One thing you’ll see is warmer minimum temperatures in the winter time. It won’t be as cold as it is now.”

So one day you might only need those sweaters you like to wear in the winter for when it’s overly air-conditioned. Sure is a good thing climate change is all a hoax, isn’t it?

We’re going to get more big rain storms

Better get used to it.

The weather is getting worse, says one expert.

Torrential rains fall in the Houston area more often than they used to, according to an unpublished analysis from state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

Heavy precipitation of any particular magnitude are twice as likely to fall in the Bayou City today as they were in the early 20th Century. Downpours that struck every two years back then come every year on average now. Deluges that used to drop each 100, 500 or 1000 years should fall more frequently as well.

Nielsen-Gammon, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University who was appointed state climatologist by Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, reviewed data from rainfall gauges across the state, some with records dating to the late 19th Century. For Harris County, he drew from 17 gauges.

“We’ve confirmed that there’s an overall increase in extreme rainfall in Texas over the past century,” he said. “Specifically for Houston the increase has been particularly large.”

[…]

An independent analysis of local rainfall data from the National Weather Service also confirmed the state climatologist’s findings. Of the 100 rainiest days in Houston since 1890, as measured at multiple gauge sites, the wettest of the wet are skewed dramatically towards the last four decades.

You can see the charts and graphs and stuff at the story link. If you’re saying to yourself “weren’t we worried just a few years ago that we’d dry out and turns to dust from lack of rain?”, the answer is yes, and the reason is because we’re getting fewer rain events with more rain in them. Fewer rainstorms, in other words, but more of the storms we do get are big, and they’re more likely to come in groups rather than be spread out more or less evenly over time. Isn’t that awesome? But don’t worry, climate change is still a myth propagated by liberals, so we don’t have anything to worry about and we surely don’t have to change any of our habits in any way.

Droughts will always be with us

Remember how wet and rainy it was earlier this year? It ain’t like that now, though we do have some rain coming later this week.

After an uncharacteristically wet early-summer across Texas, the Lone Star state’s weather has turned dry since early August.

An estimated 14 million Texans are now living in drought-affected areas, with Houston being the only major metro area with reasonably moist soils.

But even Houston is starting to feel the pinch. Most parts of the region have received just about a quarter of an inch of rain during the last four weeks.

Three months ago less than 1 percent of Texas was in a drought, today nearly 50 percent of the state is. Along with the upper Texas coast, only the Panhandle, far west Texas and South Texas are free of drought.

“Many in the agricultural industries are already dealing with another drought,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University, and the state’s climatologist. “The dry conditions have not lasted long enough to make too much of a dent in water supplies, though.”

[…]

This overall dry pattern could change during the final 10 days of the month, as forecast models indicate a more southwesterly flow that would be more conducive to showers.

Texas typically has wetter and cooler winters when El Niño develops in the Pacific Ocean.

However, when particularly strong El Niños develop,which are currently happening, that does not mean an extra wet upcoming winter for Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said.

“The two strongest El Niños, as strong as the one presently in place, were among the near-normal El Niños rather than the wet ones,” he said. “So just because this El Niño is super-strong doesn’t mean that rainfall will be super-heavy.”

However, even normal rains during the winter should be enough to quench the state’s developing drought.

Let’s hope so, because anything resembling what we went through in 2011 would be devastating. Not much more we can do about it right now, but a little basic water conservation would be helpful and is never a bad idea. And let’s hope the system that’s coming our way brings plenty of the wet stuff.

Good news for Texas lakes

All that rain has had a positive effect.

Lavon Lake

Statewide, estimates from the National Weather Service indicate the first four months of this year have been the fifth wettest since 1895 and the wettest since 1997. So far this year, estimates show the state has gotten 11.5 inches of precipitation, or about 160 percent of the normal 7.1 inches. March and April each provided 200 percent of the state’s normal rainfall.

And the news going forward is good.

A weaker-than-anticipated El Nino that brought with it rain, snow and sleet to Texas is expected to persist and intensify through next winter.

This summer’s temperatures may be the lowest since 2007-2008, according to state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammons, which could lead to less evaporation from lakes, weather officials said. Also, the state’s wettest two months – May and June – are still ahead.

[…]

Lakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are faring well. Across the seven reservoirs serving Dallas County, lake levels are up nearly 30 percent from three months ago, at 94 percent full on Friday. Fort Worth’s seven reservoirs were almost 82 percent full Friday, up from 63 percent three months ago.

Other areas too have gotten good precipitation, including Houston, Corpus Christi and Midland. The Edwards Aquifer, which serves San Antonio and much of the Hill Country, has risen nearly 20 feet since Jan. 1.

The one area where lake levels remain low is around Austin, where Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan were 38 percent full Friday; that’s the second-lowest level for this time of year since the 1960s.

There is still some exceptional drought in Texas, in places like Palo Pinto and Childress counties, northwest of Fort Worth, but overall things are much better. Here’s a DMN story about lake levels in North Texas. Lavon Lake, in Collin County, released flood waters for the first time in three years. Its level was at a record low last July. I wish things would improve for Lake Travis, but on the whole we have a lot to be thankful about.

The D-word is back

It’s never really gone away since 2009.

Locked in a seemingly endless cycle of droughts and brief reprieves, the Houston region has quietly slipped back into yet another drought.

Since December Houston has received less than half its normal rainfall. That’s a pattern present since 2009, a period when the city racked up a deficit of 56 inches, nearly five feet less rain that it normally would have collected.

And there is little relief in sight, meteorologists say.

Cold temperatures this winter have masked drought conditions. Before last weekend’s warm-up, the city of Houston was experiencing its seventh-coldest winter on record, according to the National Weather Service. This has limited the evaporation rate of water that has reached the ground.

As a result, reservoir and aquifer supplies in the Houston region are generally fine, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist.

The imprint of a drought lies within the region’s soils all the same, say forecasters with the U.S. Drought Monitor. Nearly all of Harris County was classified as being in a state of “moderate” drought in the most recent report, and parts of Brazoria County have fallen into a “severe” drought.

“The main issue is a future one, the amount of moisture in the ground come May and June.” said Nielsen-Gammon, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University. “If rainfall stays light through then, the ground will dry out fairly quickly and water use will go up. Ranchers would produce less hay than normal.”

Basically, we’ve had below average rainfall in the Houston area since Hurricane Ike. It was at its worst in 2011, of course, and there have been periods of high precipitation that have taken us out of drought classification temporarily, but for the past five years it’s been drier than usual. It’s even worse in other parts of the state. The next couple of months don’t look any better, though the good news is that long-range forecasts suggest an El Niño will develop in the fall, bringing wetter than usual conditions for next winter. Hopefully we haven’t all crumbled to dust by then. The Chron’s Weather Blog has more.

Less drought

Good news.

Drought map as of Dec 3

Drought map as of Dec 3

After near-normal rainfall during the spring and summer, this fall a number of drought-ending storm systems began to sweep across Texas, particularly the eastern half of the state.

“Drought conditions have ended in most of East and Southeast Texas,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “It’s been a recovery for the part of the state along and east of I-35. The western half of the state is still for the most part mired in drought.”

Texas was last this free of drought at the end of November 2010. After that time, the state began feeling the effects of the great drought of 2011, which peaked in early October 2011. At the time 99 percent of the state was in a “severe” or worse drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Today, about 20 percent of Texas is in a “severe” or worse drought, and 47 percent is in at least a “moderate” drought.

Houston has been drought-free since late October. The region has seen a substantial recovery in most areas, including, recently, lake levels. Lake Conroe, for example, is up to 199.5 feet, just below its full pool of 201 feet. The lake was last this high in late 2010.

“The primary lingering effects of the drought are dead trees and damaged pastures,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

You can see the difference in the drought map. I hope we keep getting enough rain to make that map even less colorful. The news isn’t all good. Lake Travis is still in bad shape, and as we know plenty of cities in West Texas and the Panhandle are facing severe long-term problems. And even if we get enough water going forward to completely alleviate the current situation, nothing can be done about all of the trees that were lost. But we’re in a much better place now than we were two years ago, and for that we are thankful.

The drought affects the coast, too

Even more reasons to hope for rain.

A growing body of research into the effects of the state’s ongoing drought, which began in late 2010 and peaked in 2011, reveal a coast deeply affected by the prolonged dry spell.

“Coastal areas don’t get much attention during a drought,” said Anna Armitage, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University at Galveston. “But we have found a significant effect on the coastal ecosystem.”

Since 2009, Armitage has been studying an estuary – an area where the current from rivers and streams mixes with sea­water – in the Sabine Neches area along the upper Texas coast.

As the drought peaked and freshwater flows slowed to a trickle, the salinity of the estuary spiked from 3 to 5 parts per thousand to around 30 parts per thousand, making it nearly as salty as water in the Gulf of Mexico.

This wiped out much of the plant and marine life living in these brackish waters, Armitage said.

“The reason I’m so interested in all of these tiny plants, tiny fish and shrimp is that they provide food for other more important fishery species,” she said. “This is the base of the Galveston Bay food web, and I’m worried about the stability of the food web.”

[…]

It’s not clear when the drought will improve to the point of restoring the Texas coast to more normal conditions.

John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, noted that Texas’ reservoirs are only about 65 percent full, the lowest they have been in a long time.

“The reservoirs are a good indicator of streamflow into Texas bays and estuaries,” he said, noting that the flows from the Brazos to the Guadalupe “are already at record or near-record low levels for this time of year.”

Absent substantial rain, this summer will bring the most severe drought conditions to Texas bays and estuaries since at least the 1960s and probably the 1950s, he said.

The drought has had the effect of helping to beat back one invasive species that couldn’t handle the increased salinity. On balance, though, it would be better to have more rain. More rain, please.

The drought is back

And we’re gonna be in trouble if it doesn’t rain soon.

Since the middle of August, the city has gotten just a foot of rain over a time period when it should get twice that.

We also have recorded six straight months of below-normal rainfall. And despite last Sunday’s splash of rain, March is likely to make it seven.

Because the lower rain totals have been registered during the coolest time of the year, the effects haven’t been deeply felt, but that could change soon as early spring turns to early summer.

“May and June are typically very wet months,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, a Texas A&M University professor and the state climatologist. “On one hand you can make up for a lot of drought during those months. On the other hand, if you don’t make up for it you can be in real trouble come summertime.”

The first eight months of 2012 were wet enough to reset the drought clock, as Nielsen-Gammon says. Outside of an almost-normal January, the past few months have been anything but wet. We’d better hope that turns around soon, and we’d better be prepared to start using less water now, before it becomes a problem.

That drought we’re having? It’s still bad

So says our state climatologist in testimony before the Lege.

John Nielsen-Gammon

John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said that during the past two years Texas received only 68 percent of its typical rainfall, making it the third driest period on record. If the extreme conditions extend through the summer, only the 1950s drought would be drier, he said.

“There is still a good chance that this could be the drought of record for parts of the state,” Nielsen-Gammon told lawmakers.

The most recent federal data shows 90 percent of Texas experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with 22 percent in extreme or exceptional drought. Meanwhile, the amount of water stored in reservoirs statewide is at its lowest point for this time of year since 1990, state officials said.

Against that backdrop, lawmakers are considering a one-time transfer from the state’s unencumbered rainy day fund into a new account to help pay for reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects. The Texas Water Development Board has identified $53 billion in needed infrastructure to avoid grave shortages over the next half-century.

Seems like every time I write about the drought we get a good soaking, so consider this my contribution to drought relief. As Forrest Wilder noted, Nielsen-Gammon even managed to talk about the correlation between climate change and drought without anyone’s head exploding, so you know, progress. Let’s see if that makes it easier to take action.

We’re still looking at a drought here

I know we just got a lot of rain this week, but that doesn’t mean that drought conditions are over.

The latest seasonal drought outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that for much of Texas and the rest of the Southwest, the drought is likely to “persist or intensify” over the next three months. Currently, 97 percent of the state is in drought conditions, with Texas’ water supply reservoirs only 65 percent full overall. And a late December briefing by NOAA on the climate notes that drought continues in over 61 percent of the country.

“During the upcoming three months, a much drier pattern is expected across the southwestern quadrant of the nation, limiting the prospects for further drought improvements during the wet season in California and Nevada,” NOAA says in its drought outlook.

State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon adds on.

2012 was a drought year. Following the driest 12 consecutive months on record and second driest calendar year on record, 2012 was running 0.14″ above normal through September. This wasn’t enough to end the drought statewide, but many parts of Texas, especially in its eastern half, drought became a distant memory and a distant problem. Elsewhere, reservoir levels continued to drop, but rain in most of the major metropolitan areas of the state made things seem much better.

Then, starting in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and eventually spreading to much of the rest of the state, the rainfall stopped. The final three months of 2012 were the third-driest October-December on record for Texas. Drought spread, and Galveston even had to impose water restrictions, although restrictions on outdoor watering aren’t much of a problem this time of year.

With the year ending up with below-normal precipitation, the combined two-year period 2011-2012 was the fourth-driest on record, beaten only by 1916-1917, 1955-1956, and 1909-1910.

Click over to see the pictures. We headed into January last year expecting a dry winter and were very pleasantly surprised to get an unusually large amount of rain over the next few months, enough to erase the drought in many places. We got lucky, in other words. We need to be lucky again, but more than that we need to be better prepared for when we’re not so lucky. Oh, and 2012 was really warm, too. It’d be nice to be better prepared for that, too.

Have I mentioned the that drought is back?

I hate to say it, but it is.

A dry winter that’s on track to making the record books has sent portions of Texas, including Houston and Fort Worth, back into severe drought, raising concerns about wildfires and the health of wheat crops and tree farms.

September and November could be the driest of those months since 1950 and among the top five driest on record, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said. And not much more rain is expected this winter or spring since the El Niño pattern meteorologists had counted on for some moisture fizzled out.

[…]

“Normally … the ground is taking up a lot of moisture and the temperatures are cool enough for the ground to stay moist for most of the winter,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “But … it simply hasn’t rained much in the past couple of months, so things are as dry.”

As a result, reservoirs are not refilling, and some are dropping, which is unusual for winter in Texas, Nielsen-Gammon added.

How dry was November? This dry.

In the year of Austin’s last rain-less November — 1897 —the Civil War was a recent enough memory that the University of Texas was forced to defend itself over claims that “northern professors” were “teaching heresies.”

Following an investigation, the regents announced “there has not been taught in the University anything objectionable to southern people” and, other things being equal, they confirmed that they opted for teachers who were “Texas men first and southern men next.”

One hundred and fifteen years later, in the latest sign of a seemingly unshakable drought, not one drop of rain was recorded at Camp Mabry during the November just ended.

Only three times — in 1871, 1894, and 1897 — has zero rain been recorded during November at the Austin site since record-keeping began in 1856.

Nearly three inches fall in a typical November; this year, nothing. But thanks to storms the first half of the year, 2012’s precipitation is still outpacing the average rainfall.

The drought, which just months ago was seemingly broken by all those rains, is slowly reasserting itself in Central Texas.

The good news is that Central Texas, at least, is still a lot better off than it was two years ago. The bad news is that the next three months are forecast to have below average rainfall. One wonders if a second session with drought stories abounding will be sufficient to spur the Legislature into action. I’m not holding my breath. SciGuy has more.

There’s still a drought out there

Despite the rain, the state of Texas is still mostly in drought conditions, and the threat will remain for the next several years.

Most of Central and East Texas beat long odds with heavy rains this winter, but experts warned state lawmakers Thursday that the drought is far from over.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said that the second year of a La Niña cycle — cooler temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that influence global weather patterns — produces a dry winter for Texas “4 times out of 5.”

But Nielsen-Gammon said it’s a coin toss whether the recent winning streak will continue. “The (short-term) outlook is not particularly dire or good,” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a summary of drought conditions that was updated Thursday, showed how quickly conditions can change. As recently as 
Oct. 4, 88 percent of the state was categorized as being in “exceptional” drought, the most severe level. On Thursday’s map, about 18 percent of the state remained in that category.

[…]

Nielsen-Gammon said that most of the winter rains fell on the most populated areas of the state.

“The people of Texas are going to tend to forget a drought is still going on in many parts of Texas,” he said.

In parts of the Panhandle and far West Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the drought has gotten worse this winter.

Despite the rains and the short-term forecast, Nielsen-Gammon said he still believes Texas remains in a long-term drought cycle.

“We are more likely to get droughts over the next decade than the one after that,” he said.

Lake levels remain down, and while conservation remains the best strategy for both the short and long term, such planning is often inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, urged lawmakers to maximize the state’s existing water supplies.

He testified that drought contingency plans are drafted locally and filed with the state without the state reviewing “how much water is actually being saved.”

He said that causes inconsistencies in how cities — including neighboring communities drawing from the same water supplies — handle restrictions on water use.

“It’s (a problem) everywhere,” Ritter said. “It’s definitely an issue we will be dealing with.”

For example, Kramer said, voluntary restrictions on water use were never used in Corpus Christi because the restrictions aren’t triggered until the city’s reservoir reaches 50 percent of capacity. Kramer suggested that is too low and that weather conditions — not just reservoir levels — should be part of the equation.

“You may well be into a drought before the reservoir reaches the trigger,” he said.

Likewise, Kramer said Houston was restricting its residents to twice-a-week watering of their lawns while selling water to neighboring cities that didn’t have those limits.

He said water wholesalers, whether public suppliers like Houston or private companies, don’t have a financial incentive to restrict water sales.

I don’t see how we can hope to effectively deal with this without some state level regulations. Especially now that some parts of the state are feeling flush, the incentives are all out of whack. It may go against the grain for some folks – Rep. Ritter was clearly not thrilled with the idea – but I don’t see how you can prevent shortsighted usage when there’s a buck to be made without them.

The Trib also covered this hearing, and added another dimension to it.

“This is the biggest threat we have to our economy right now,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking about water supplies. In 2011, he added, “the bell went off, and either we’re going to do something or we’re not.”

How big a threat to the economy is this? This big.

Texas’ worst drought in history just got worse, with new estimates putting the agricultural toll at $7.6 billion for 2011 – $2.4 billion above the original loss estimate, which already was a record.

The recently updated estimate from Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists was $3.5 billion more than the losses for the previous record drought in 2006.

“When you are one of the biggest agricultural-producing states in the nation, a monumental drought causes enormous losses,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

If we’re not adequately prepared for when this happens again, we’re going to be that much worse off.

Keep that rain coming

The recent rain has been great for mitigating the drought, but we still have a long way to go.

During the last week an arc of Texas beset by a historic drought for a year – stretching from San Antonio to Austin to Bryan to Houston – received between 2 and 6 inches of rain, capping a fairly wet three-month period.

Indeed, during the last 90 days, as a very dry pattern gave way to regular rain systems, Harris County has received about 125 to 150 percent of its normal rainfall level.

“Progress is being made,” against the drought said John Nieslen-Gammon, a Texas A&M University atmospheric scientist who is the state climatologist.

With an average of 15 inches across Harris County during the last three months – nearly equal to the total rain that fell in Houston in all of 2011 – the drought’s effect on agriculture has largely been eliminated, he said. What remains now is filling up reservoirs, aquifers and increasing the moisture levels of deep soils.

A couple of weeks ago I noted that Harris County was no longer in “exceptional” drought status. Our situation has improved since then. Here’s what the drought map for Texas looks like now:

Looking better, but still not good

If you compare it to the map I displayed in that previous post, you can see that Harris County is now almost entirely out of Extreme drought and now is merely in Severe drought. And now almost five percent of the state, all up north, is completely drought-free. On the dark side, the share of the state in Exceptional drought status has creeped up a bit; looks like things are getting worse down in South Texas. Overall it’s better, but we’re a long way from celebrating anything.

This winter has defied the expectations of forecasters, who expected the influence of the La Niña climate pattern in the equatorial Pacific Ocean to limit Texas rainfall as it did last winter.

Forecasters still believe the balance of winter and spring will be drier, and forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say through May, the odds of below normal precipitation are two to three times greater than those for above normal.

Just because we’re currently headed in the right direction doesn’t mean we will continue to do so. All we can do is hope. SciGuy has more.

How small does good news have to be before it’s not considered good news any more?

Whatever that threshold is, this has got to be pretty close to it.

Christmas came a little early for a small slice of Texas this year. We can now say that part of Texas is no longer in drought. A small part, to be sure, only 0.01 percent, but it’s happy news nonetheless.

According to new data from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska (with a grateful hat tip to Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune), a sliver of Texas along the Texas-Oklahoma border is officially drought-free. Just east of Paris, Texas, 3.7 percent of Red River County is no longer in drought, representing 0.01 percent of the entire state.

At the beginning of the year, nearly 8 percent of the state wasn’t in drought and none of Texas was at the “exceptional” level of drought. Today, nearly 39 percent of Texas is at the “exceptional” level, the most severe stage of drought.

3.7% of a cheer for Red River County! However, before you get your hopes up for the rest of the state, go read John Nielson-Gammon, who notes that “it’s hard to break out of a drought when you’re still setting records” for dryness. And we’re still under La Niña conditions, so expect things to continue as they have been for a few more months. Such a cheery thing to look forward to for 2012, eh?

This drought could last a long time

In case you needed some gloomy news.

Texas’ historic and lingering drought has already worn out its welcome, but it could easily stay around for years and there is a chance it might last another five years or even until 2020, says a Texas A&M University weather expert.

John Nielsen-Gammon, who serves as Texas State Climatologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M, says the culprit is the likely establishment of a new La Niña in the central Pacific Ocean. A La Niña is formed when colder than usual ocean temperatures form in the central Pacific, and these tend to create wetter than normal conditions in the Pacific Northwest but also drier than normal conditions in the Southwest. A La Niña has been blamed for starting the current drought but the new one, which began developing several weeks ago, is likely to extend drought conditions for Texas and much of the Southwest.

Currently, about 95 percent of Texas is in either a severe or exceptional drought status and the past year has been the worst one-year drought in the state’s history, Nielsen-Gammon adds.

“This is looking more and more like a multi-year drought,” explains the Texas A&M professor.

[…]

“Our best chance to weaken the drought would have been a tropical system coming in from the gulf, but that never happened and hurricane season is just about over for us,” Nielsen-Gammon reports. “There’s still hope for significant rain through the end of October while tropical moisture is still hanging around, but that’s all it is – a hope.”

“In the next few months, the outlook is not all that promising for rain. Parts of Texas, such as the Panhandle and far Northeast Texas, have a better chance than the rest of the state,” he adds.

“Because Texas needs substantially above-normal rain to recover, and it’s not likely to get it, I expect that most of the state will still be in major drought through next summer.”

And in the meantime, our long term water needs will continue to be unfunded. Have a nice day.

Drought could last a long time

This is by far the scariest thing I’ve read in awhile.

As historically bad as this summer’s drought has been, we may not have seen the worst of it.

There’s growing concern among some scientists that Texas’ drought could linger through another dry winter and return next summer to more deeply ravage an already water-stressed state.

“I’ve started telling anyone who’s interested that it’s likely much of Texas will still be in severe drought this time next summer, with water supply implications even worse than those we are now experiencing,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a Texas A&M University professor.

[…]

Earlier this month, the federal Climate Prediction Center raised its forecast odds for the return of La Niña conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean this winter to 50 percent.

During a La Niña winter, Texas generally experiences mild temperatures and drier-than-normal weather, but there are no guarantees.

“When you think in terms of a climate forecast and a condition such as La Niña, what’s really happening is you’re changing your odds,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the climate prediction center.”There have been some La Niña winters in Texas that have been wet. But most of them have been dry.”

Nielsen-Gammon, who correctly predicted the onset of a significant drought last October because of a La Niña winter, said chance favors at least parts of Texas continuing to experience a drought that will stretch on for two or more years.

It may be even worse than it sounds, and even worse than the six-year drought of the 1950s. Anybody want to talk seriously about water conservation now?

Texas State Climatologist on the EPA and greenhouse gases

Did you know that Texas had a State Climatologist? I didn’t. His name is John Nielsen-Gammon, he’s a professor at Texas A&M, and you should read this brief interview in Think Progress about his opinions on carbon dioxide, the Environmental Protection Agency, and that lawsuit that was filed by our state leaders challenging the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Dr. Nielsen-Gammon also blogs for the Chron if you want more detail about what’s in that lawsuit and atmospheric science in general. Check it out.