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Relief From Great Plains Drought Could Be Only Temporary, Experts Say

By Lauren Morello, E&E reporter, with contribution by reporter Tiffany Stecker
4/28/2012 8:46:09 AM

The historic drought that has gripped Texas for more than a year is slowly easing, but the relief could be temporary if the current La Niña weather pattern persists into a third year, scientists said yesterday.

Dry conditions in the Great Plains are a signature of the weather phenomenon, which is sparked by unusually cool surface waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

Last April, 100 percent of Texas had some level of drought. Seventy percent was in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, shown by the dark red areas. This week, drought lingers in 62 percent of the state, but only 25 percent of is in the "extreme" category. Maps courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor.

"We are very clearly heading out of La Niña, at least for the summer months," said Klaus Wolter, a research scientist at the University of Colorado.

Wolter, who spoke yesterday at a drought forum in Lubbock, Texas, told reporters there is a 30 to 40 percent chance that La Niña's counterpart, El Niño, will develop this fall. That would be welcome news in the drought-racked southern Great Plains, where El Niño usually heralds heavy rains.

But there is still a chance that La Niña could re-emerge for a third year, heaping misery onto New Mexico, west Texas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, where the current drought has proved especially tenacious.

"Right now, if I had to be, I would definitely hedge toward a La Niña," Wolter said. "But that's sort of conditional. I want to see what happens in the next two months."

So does Victor Murphy, who manages climate services for the National Weather Service's Southern Region.

"If there will be any significant improvement in west Texas or New Mexico, it will be in the next three to four months," he said, explaining that May, June and July are normally the wettest months of the year in west Texas. In neighboring New Mexico, the rainy season arrives a bit later, during the monsoon months of July, August and September.

$7.2B in Texas farm losses

The current drought, which began in late 2010, has devastated Texas' agriculture industry. The state's farmers and ranchers recorded losses of $7.62 billion last year, according to the Agrilife Extension Service at Texas A&M University.

Much-needed spring rains have improved conditions this year, especially in eastern Texas, but that recovery is tenuous. Nearly 14 percent of the state is still experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, according to the National Drought Monitor.

Steelee Fischbacher, communications director of the Texas Wheat Producers, said she expects an average or above-average wheat crop this year -- welcome news for an industry that produced 49.4 million bushels last year, about half its average output.

"We've gotten some timely rainfall that's been able to help the wheat quite a bit," Fischbacher said. "But even though we might have an average crop, that doesn't mean we have completely rebounded from the drought. Sub-soil moisture is still really low. We've gotten just enough top-level moisture to get this crop going. As far as replenishing [water] supplies, we're still not there yet."

The state's reservoirs are slowly refilling, according to the Texas Water Development Board, and reached 78 percent of their capacity at the end of March -- 20 percent higher than the record low set in November.

But the picture is still grim in parts of west Texas and the Panhandle, where 10 reservoirs are "effectively empty." They include a pair of man-made lakes near the city of San Angelo, which has just 15 to 18 months' worth of water left to supply its 100,000 residents.

The city has restricted water use and is developing a $120 million pipeline to deliver groundwater from the nearby Hickory Aquifer. But that project won't yield new water until 2014, when a new water treatment plan is ready to operate.

If the current drought persists for a second year, San Angelo's prospects are bleak, said Murphy.

"If drought does stick around for a second year, the concern would be how west Texas would handle it, the Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle," he said. "There's no way in the world that you can truck water to the 100,000 people in San Angelo."

Dave Dubois, New Mexico's state climatologist, has similar worries for his state's water supply, based on current streamflow forecasts.

"It's not a good picture for any relief at all, at least for the short term," he said "The snowpack in the northern part of the state and southern Colorado melted out very quickly -- in some places, about a month early. That's not a good sign."

Recovery will be slow

Streamflows into the Elephant Butte Reservoir, perched on the Rio Grande a few miles north of the tiny town of Truth or Consequences, N.M., are just a quarter of the normal level, for example. And after a year of drought, the reservoir is at 20 percent capacity.

Even if rainfall is at or above normal levels this summer, drought recovery will be slow, experts cautioned.

"It's not easy to get out of a drought," Wolter said. "The only slam-dunk way is for a hurricane to make landfall. ... It's not something you can count on."

Wildfire finds tinder-dry woodlands in Wisconsin last month. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

One bright spot may be the forecasts for the upcoming wildfire season.

In Texas, there isn't much left to burn after last year's wildfire outbreaks, which rank among the state's worst, said Murphy. And the vegetation that remains sprang up early this spring, helped along by strong rains.

"I've been amazed at how few wildfires we've had in Texas so far," he added.

Murphy's predictions echo the wildfire outlook released yesterday by the National Interagency Fire Center.

Ed Delgado, a meteorologist at the center, said the lack of fuel -- such as grasses, wood or other flammable vegetation -- makes it unlikely that west Texas will suffer another summer of widespread wildfires.

But he predicted risk would be high throughout the Southwest, including the interior mountains in California and the western Great Basin. Strong wildfire seasons are also likely on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains and parts of Hawaii, the Midwest and the East, including southern Georgia and northern Florida.

The severity of fires will depend on whether La Niña gives way to "neutral" conditions or an El Niño, Delgado said. Last year's mild winter meant snowpack was light, leading to drier spring conditions that make it easier for grasses to burn in the cooler climates of the Northeast and Midwest.

last year, 53,870 fires that destroyed nearly 7 million acres were recorded by summer's end. About half the damage occurred in the southern United States.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service launched the ForWarn system, an early warning system that tracks disturbances in forests from insects, diseases, wildfires, extreme weather or other events with ties to climate change.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues.Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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