A Swing from Drought to Deluge in Texas and Nearby States

As has been the case in other parts of the country in recent years, the parched region from eastern Texas to northern Louisiana and Arkansas is swinging sharply from experiencing severe drought to facing the risk of potential flooding in a span of just a few short months. Or as climate blogger Joe Romm might colorfully put it, Texas and nearby states may be swinging from “hell to high water.”

Just a few months ago this region was still mired in one of the worst droughts on record. Last year was Texas’ driest on record, and the vast majority of the state was classified as being in severe to exceptional drought. The scorching summer of 2011 only exacerbated the drought by drying out soils and reservoirs more quickly. Oklahoma and Texas both set records for the warmest summers of any state since records began in the U.S. in the late 19th Century.

Five-day rainfall forecast showing a bullseye of heavy rains across eastern Texas and parts of Arkansas and Louisiana. Credit: NOAA/HPC.

As I detailed in late February, a wetter pattern has returned to eastern Texas and neighboring states, and drought conditions have eased. A slow-moving storm system is expected to drop several inches of rain in eastern Texas, northern Louisiana and much of Arkansas during the next three days. According to the National Weather Service, parts of northeast Texas and much of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana may receive up to 4 inches of rain Thursday night, with more to come on Friday. The Weather Service is not yet warning of the risk of major flooding, but some flash flooding is certainly possible where slow-moving thunderstorms hit.

The feast-or-famine nature of rainfall in Texas and the Lower Mississippi River Valley lately is in line with broad-scale climate change projections and observational studies, which show that the hydrological cycle is already starting to intensify, bringing more frequent and severe heavy precipitation events and droughts. While the Texas drought has not yet been specifically tied to global warming, it may have played a role in making the drought worse than it otherwise would have been by raising temperatures and drying out soils faster than they otherwise would have.

Texas drought monitor as of March 6, 2012, showing improved conditions throughout much of eastern Texas. Credit: NOAA/USDA.

Despite the recent rains, the Texas drought was too severe to save this year’s Texas rice crop, as the Highland Lakes northwest of Austin were too low — about 42 percent full — to allow the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to release water to the farmers. This is the first time on record that the growers were denied access to this water supply, a testament to how severe the drought has been during the past year. The $200 million Texas rice industry comprises about 5 percent of the total U.S. rice crop.

The severe drought is spurring the LCRA to go on the hunt for more water supplies, having set a goal of finding 100,000 acre-feet of new supply in the next five years, according to a statement from the organization.