Texas Tech University

Water for West Texas

John Davis

January 6, 2015

Water for West Texas

Recent rains improve drought standing for some counties.

Cotton drought
Rains in 2014 helped the drought, but more is needed.

The good news is the drought on the South Plains has started to improve.

However, experts at Texas Tech University say the area known for cotton production has a way to go before soil moisture levels return to normal, despite the wet summer it received in 2014.

This November, nearby Borden, Dawson and Gaines counties were taken off the drought list, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. However, Lubbock remained on the list as “abnormally dry” in December – a step below normal.

This year's rains helped the drought, which began in July 2011, but more is needed to come completely out of the dry spell, said Brian Ancell, an assistant professor of atmospheric science at Texas Tech.

“Droughts are regional events that take place over months or years, and they won't go away with a brief time of surplus rain,” he said. “Essentially the drought depletes the ground's water and hurts plant life. The recharging of the ground's water doesn't happen with a single heavy rain, no matter how heavy. Much of that becomes runoff and ends up in reservoirs, and the plants won't 'green up' in a single day. They need to re-establish under prolonged, moister conditions.

“So, to remedy a drought, there is really no way to not do it without prolonged above-normal precipitation regionally not just heavy thunderstorms here and there. However, Texas 'drought area has shrunk due to the above-normal rains we've sustained over the past year.”

This year, rain came more frequently, allowing the soil to reabsorb groundwater lost through years of dry weather,  said Glen Ritchie, an assistant professor of crop physiology at Texas Tech's Department of Plant and Soil Science.

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

“Most of the areas around Lubbock ranged anywhere from approximately 16 inches on up to 25 to 30 inches of rain,” Ritchie said. “That's depending on whether you're counting from Jan. 1 or the beginning of the crop year. Most of our fields in Lubbock County during the summer crop season received about 16 inches of rain.”

The extra rain the South Plains received improved 2014's crop outlook, he said, coming at the right times.

“We had a lot of rainfall in June and July,” Ritchie said. “August was pretty dry, then we had quite a bit of rainfall in September, October and November. So from a standpoint of just getting the crops out of the field, and getting a new crop put in, we're in pretty good shape. The challenge is that, with any given crop, we have only enough soil storage to take that crop through a certain amount of time. For instance, with cotton, we experienced a substantial yield loss just by having a few dry weeks in August. With wheat right now, we've got plenty of soil moisture to get it up and established. But if we turn up dry for the rest of the winter, we're going to have a lot of problems with it.”

Ancell said El Niño conditions continue to be neutral, meaning neither El Niño or La Niña , and these Pacific Ocean weather patterns impact the South Plains the most in terms of moisture received. In terms of prediction, the Climate Prediction Center gives the greatest probability of El Niño returning this winter, he said, and could persist into the spring.

This likely would give the South Plains area below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation, further reducing the drought throughout Texas, he said.

“The last time this occurred was winter/spring 2010, when we were well over average precipitation and colder than normal,” he said. “The best chance is that drought conditions will probably continue to lessen through the coming spring.”

Ritchie also said that having the heavy rainfall in 2014 has certainly helped recharge shrinking reservoirs such as Lake Alan Henry. However, the area still suffers from a deficit of regular rainfall during the past four to five years.

Map courtesy: High Plains Water District. (click to enlarge)

Prior to 2014, the last year with above average rainfall was 2010, he said.

“Last year wasn't bad, but it wasn't nearly enough to get us caught up,” he said. “2014 has been more of a typical year with similar-to-normal rainfall and temperatures during the course of the year.”

Katharine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech's Climate Science Center, said the South Plains has always experienced times of drought and downpour naturally, but climate change likely will cause both weather conditions to occur with greater ferocity in the future.

The science behind why is simple, Hayhoe said. Though Lubbock and surrounding areas may have experienced a cooler-feeling summer this year, 2014 was the hottest summer on record globally.

“When it's warmer – and every season in Texas has been warming since 1950s – more water than normal evaporates from lakes, rivers and streams and the soil,” Hayhoe said. “This makes droughts stronger. At the same time, there's more water in the air for a storm to pick up and dump. So with a warmer overall climate, we'll have stronger cycles of drought and flooding.”

Every season is getting warmer, but winters are warming the most, she said, and the rainy season in West Texas has shifted out of summer into the spring. The annual rainfall isn't changing on average, but when the rain does come, it comes in large downpours.

“It's not good for us or the crops to have heavy downpours with long dry spells in between,” she said. “Also, in West Texas, we've been using the Ogallala Aquifer to cushion the impacts of drought. The aquifer has been a great resource to help us through the drought, but the aquifer is also going one way, fast. And that's down. In the future, we are going to be more vulnerable to drought because we don't have this reservoir of water underneath us to depend on like we used to.”

Switching to sustainable farming practices, investing in drip irrigation and developing drought-resistant crops now can slow the aquifer's water usage, she said. While a certain amount of climate change has and will happen, making changes now to conserve water can avoid the bulk of problems associated with climate change.

“Texas is a big part of the solution,” she said. “There are ways forward that can ensure we have a healthy economy, agricultural community and a better quality of life, but we aren't going to make those changes by clinging to the security blanket of the past.”