It's often said that every cloud has a silver lining.
We're 40 days out from Easter and there's a lot of Texas farmers and ranchers casting their eyes on the winter sky lately, watching the clouds carefully, but seeing very little substantive rain in most parts of the Southwest. As the spring planting season quietly knocks at the distant door of March and April, a critical time for seeding and emergence in crop fields and warm weather grasses on the range, producers are hoping to spot that silver lining in the form of measurable precipitation to provide relief from the recent trend in dry conditions.
"We're getting rain in Texas periodically, but not enough and not in sufficient amounts to offer deep soil moisture across large parts of the state. The latest U.S. drought monitor indicates 64 percent of Texas is experiencing moderate drought conditions and in the Panhandle, where they had serious outbreaks of wildfire incidents last year, they are already experiencing extreme drought conditions," said Eric Platt, senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in San Antonio/Austin.
NWS reports parts of Texas, including Amarillo, have not seen rain for more than 112 days, a record for the most consecutive days without measurable precipitation. It's also the first time in 127 years Amarillo has had a completely dry November-through-January period, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center.
Even the driest location in the U.S., Death Valley, has been wetter this winter than parts of the southern High Plains of Texas.
According to the U.S. drought monitor, nearly 90 percent of Texas is experiencing some level of drought, and in spite of an approaching cold front later this week that will bring showers to parts of the state, the rain likely won’t have much of an effect on Texas drought conditions.
The only areas that aren't lacking rain include a few counties in south-southwest Texas bordering the Rio Grande River and a few counties in southeast Texas including the Houston-Galveston region.
In the NWS drought bulletin this week, frequent fronts, cold, dry air and lack of return moisture from the Gulf of Mexico have all combined to create this drier than average weather pattern. Adding to the trend of dry conditions, the current influence of La Niña continues to rob moisture from the southern tier of the North America. While there have been signs of a possible summer weakening of the Pacific weather event, it may take some time before average rains return to the dry Southwest.
And it's not just Texas, but most of the Southwest and parts of the Southeast as well are suffering from dry conditions. Albuquerque is behind in annual precipitation totals and according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the growth of winter wheat has been slowed in Oklahoma, with 79 percent of the crop rated in poor or very poor condition last week. Similar conditions for wheat are being reported in parts of Texas.
According to Texas State Climatologist and Texas A&M Professor of Atmospheric Sciences John Nielsen-Gammon, North Texas is suffering the worst from the current drought, though almost every area of the state is negatively impacted. He warns that while the winter months are not a time in which there is much evaporation or an excessive amount of water usage, meaning that currently lakes and reservoirs are not being stressed, but if dry conditions stretch into the spring and summer, extreme drought conditions could begin to develop rapidly across much of Texas.
He says the biggest threat from dry conditions currently is the growing risk of wildfires. Several large wildfires are currently burning in parts of Texas and Oklahoma and burn bans have been ordered in over 100 Texas counties and in the western half of Oklahoma.
At the beginning of February the National Climate Prediction Center noted that 38.4 percent of the continental U.S. is in a drought. USA Today is reporting that is the highest percentage since the 40 percent recorded in May 2014. On the West Coast, California is suffering more than 45 percent drought conditions. Adding to concerns across the West and Southwest are below average snow packs, the primary contributor to fresh water resupply of major rivers and reservoirs, making the outlook for spring and summer less than desirable.
In Texas, Scott Breit, fire analyst with the Texas A&M Forest Service, warns that while farmers and ranchers could suffer as a result of intensifying drought conditions in the weeks and months ahead, he agrees the bigger threat could be out-of-control fires that damage property, destroy homes and farms and put human lives at risk.
Mark Welch, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension grains economist, says for farmers, the crops that are going to suffer the most in the short term are the winter crops, particularly grains. But he said if rains were to come sooner than later, it could salvage what otherwise could turn out to be a dry year affecting both dryland crops and the availability of water for irrigated fields.
Welch said he is concerned that if farmers were having a hard time breaking even with better weather conditions last year, then a dry year in 2018 could be even more challenging. With low commodity crops prices and the growing concern over trade relations, the last thing agriculture needs is a serious and long-lasting drought.
Breit says the added concern of wildfire and the damages it can cause for farmers and ranchers could be the greater worry. Forest Service officials report that since the beginning of the new year, a total of 18,475 acres of the Lone Star State have burned. And as temperatures begin to rise in March and April, the dangers of fire risk will rise rapidly.
Senior forecaster Jonathan Erdman says the latest seasonal drought outlook from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center doesn't particularly offer good news either. The forecast calls for either drought conditions persisting or expanding through the end of April.
But not all news is bad news. Erdman says that average precipitation steps up noticeably in the southern High Plains in spring and peaks in summer, and if La Niña relaxes its influence in the Pacific soon and spring and summer rains help to replenish soil moisture, it could salvage what otherwise could turn out to be a long, dry farming season.