Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

National Climatic Data Center

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.

How dry we were

We were drier than ever last year.

U.S. Drought Monitor

How bad is it?

Federal scientists confirmed Friday that Texas had its driest year on record in 2011.

The statewide average rainfall for the year totaled just 14.88 inches, according to the National Climatic Data Center, beating the previous low of 14.99 inches set in 1917.

During the last century, Texas averaged 27.92 inches of rain per year.

Temperature-wise, the state ended the year with its second-hottest mark, 67.2 degrees, finishing just below the record of 67.5 degrees set in 1921.

“Drought begets heat and then heat begets drought, and a feedback cycle develops,” said Victor Murphy, manager of climate services at the National Weather Service’s southern region headquarters in Fort Worth. “We saw this in May through September.”

So, climate change would be bad, then. Just something to think about. The bad news is that the La Niña pattern that drove last year’s dry weather is expected to persist in 2012. So making sure we are doing all we can to not waste water would be a good idea. SciGuy has more.