Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sodden Spring Eases Texas’ Yearslong Drought

Sodden Spring Eases Texas’ Yearslong Drought

Eighty-two percent of state was drought-free as of May 26, up from 11% a year earlier

By Miguel Bustillo in the Wall Street Journal

DALLAS—This week’s devastating Texas floods capped an exceptionally wet spring for the Lone Star State that has effectively ended its yearslong drought.
Eighty-two percent of Texas was drought-free as of May 26, up from just 11% a year earlier, according to U.S. Drought Monitor estimates released by the government Thursday. None of the state remained in severe drought.
May is already the wettest month in recorded Texas history, averaging 7.54 inches of rain, beating the record of 6.66 inches set in June 2004, according to state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. Some counties north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area have received more than 20 inches.
Formerly shrunken lakes and reservoirs are brimming with water—to the point where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was strategically releasing water from many to reduce flooding, even before this week’s torrential rains. And the rainy trend is expected to continue: forecasters predict an unusually soggy Texas summer.
“This is the first time since June of 2010 that we have not had extreme or exceptional drought in some part of the state,” said Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator at the Texas Water Development Board, adding, “The scientific tea leaves suggest a wet rest of the year.”
A similar recovery is playing out this spring in several other southwestern and plains states, including Oklahoma and Colorado, federal figures show, leaving western states such as California and Oregon, whose droughts haven’t eased, as outliers.
Just four years ago, Texas’ drought was so bad that then-Gov. Rick Perry issued a formal declaration asking state residents to pray for rain. Texas ranchers, the top beef producers in the U.S., were selling off cattle en masse because they could no longer afford hay to feed them, as grasslands withered. Officials in some cities adopted restrictions limiting how often residents could water lawns.
The prayers weren’t immediately answered, but ceaseless storms this year have exceeded the region’s thirst, saturating the ground in many parts of Texas and Oklahoma and leading to this week’s flash floods, which have killed more than 15 people and damaged thousands of homes, primarily in Houston and the counties around Austin.
Official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who monitor water levels statewide, have been working 12-hour shifts to time releases from reservoirs such as Lewisville Lake north of Dallas in hopes of minimizing flooding.
North Texas reservoirs, many of which were half full just a year ago, are now in danger of spilling over, forcing flood-management officials to release water into the already swollen Trinity and Brazos rivers. That helped force some 200 households near the Brazos in Parker County, west of Fort Worth, to evacuate Wednesday amid rising waters.
“We are in one of these periods where we see thunderstorms just moving across the state in waves,” said Jerry Cotter, chief of the Army Corps’ water-resources branch in Fort Worth. “To release all the floodwater in these reservoirs, it is going to take months.”
While many Texas ranchers are contending with floods threatening their cattle, they recognize that the storms are replenishing grasslands and will make it possible to rebuild herds, said Pete Bonds, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which has more than 16,400 members.
But Mr. Bonds, who had to sell half of his own cows in 2011, says he is leery of building up too fast only to see dry times return.
“What happens when this is over? We have to remain a little concerned that this could be a short spell in a longer drought,” he said. “I don’t want to pay $2,500 to $3,000 for a cow and have to sell it a year later.”
Officials in Dallas and other large cities are voicing similar caution, vowing to maintain water restrictions until it is clear that Texas is past the drought.
But experts predict that the wet weather in Texas looks likely to continue, at least this year. Rong Fu, a professor at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences, released a forecast projecting the probability of a wet summer in Texas that showed nearly the entire Lone Star State bathed in blue.
“If April is very wet, chances are that the summer is going to be wetter, and that is what we saw this year,” she said.

—Ana Campoy contributed to this article.

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