Drought Has Stranglehold on West; Southeast Sees Relief

By Daniel Yawitz and Andrew Freedman

The extended drought continues to choke the Western half of the country, with water supply concerns rising in New Mexico and Texas as anxiety about another bone-dry summer is raised. This week, the dryness grew worse in Texas while expanding into California, Montana, and Oregon, so that most of the land west of the Mississippi River was under some form of drought conditions, according to Thursday's update to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Cracks in the parched ground in Texas during the first summer of drought there in 2011. The drought in Texas continues, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Credit: Flickr/AgriLifeToday.

Conditions in the Great Plains remain dire: parts of eastern Texas are facing rainfall shortages on the order of 8-16 inches. Reservoir levels in Donley County, in the Texas Panhandle, were 12 inches below normal. Cimarron County, Okla., has gone 100 consecutive days with less than a quarter inch of rainfall. Wichita Falls, Texas, a city of about 100,000, has been added to the state's list of communities that may run out of water within 180 days, although city managers don’t think that is likely. According to reporting by the Texas Tribune, Wichita Falls will likely enact unprecedented water restrictions by the end of the summer, which would ban the filling of swimming pools, restrict car-washing businesses, and affect industrial water users.

Texas has endured drought conditions since the sweltering summer of 2011, and weather outlooks do not show a return to wetter conditions for the spring and summer. Studies have shown that climate change has likely aggravated the Texas drought and conditions elsewhere by making it hotter than they otherwise would be, thereby helping to dry soils faster. Scientists have also found that drought is more likely to occur in parts of the U.S. when there are cooler-than-average waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean, and warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic, a setup that has been in place since last spring.

Further west, despite a wet start to the year, northern California and southern Oregon are exhibiting signs of unseasonable dryness. Precipitation deficits have left a light snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and consequently, spring runoff is forecasted to be low this year. Both of those developments also lead to concerns about early season wildfires.

In the meantime, continued above-average rainfall over the Southeast has led to dramatic reductions in the drought’s impact in Georgia and South Carolina. The area of severe drought in both states has been completely eliminated; it's the first time both states have been free from “severe” drought since September 2010. That is a dramatic change since just eight weeks ago. On January 29th, 43 percent of Georgia was under “extreme” drought or worse. Rains from this week also eased drought conditions in Florida, which had been steadily developing severe drought conditions since the start of the water year.

Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor.

In response to the ongoing drought conditions and low snowpack in Colorado, Denver’s water authority imposed mandatory restrictions on water use this week, reported Bloomberg news. The last time Denver officials restricted water use due to drought was in 2002.

Low water levels in New Mexico, which has been particularly hard-hit over the past year, continues to place pressure on local farmers. This week, farmers in the southwestern state pressured the state to issue a “priority call,” that would give farmers priority access to the already scarce water supplies before it is pumped into cities for municipal use, the New York Times reported.

The West and Southwest is likely to face long-term drought concerns as climate change leads to warmer spring and summer temperatures, at the same time as population growth is putting a strain on available water supplies. For example, a federal report released in December 2012 found that due to climate change, drought, and population growth, water demand in the Colorado River Basin – which supplies water to nearly 40 million people in seven Western states, including New Mexico – will greatly exceed supplies.

According to the Spring Weather Outlook released by NOAA last week, drought is expected to continue to deteriorate and expand in the Western and Southwestern states for the rest of the season, while additional relief is forecast for the Southeast.

The Drought Monitor, a product of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the USDA, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, quantifies the impacts of short- and long-term drought across the U.S. It is updated every Thursday.

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