With headlines dominated by the impact of extreme winter weather, Texans could be forgiven for overlooking another climate event: a historic lack of precipitation over the past several months that has left 85% of the state, including Tarrant County, experiencing drought conditions.

The seven-month period between September 2021 and March 2022 was the driest September-March period in Texas since 1967 and the eighth driest measured in 127 years, according to the Texas Water Development Board’s April 11 “Water Weekly” report

That reality has left nearly 18 million Texans affected by the drought as of April 7, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Ninety-five percent of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, or the precursor to drought – a sharp increase from the drought of 2020, when 58% of the state was abnormally dry. 

Drought conditions are most severe in south and west Texas, as well as parts of the Panhandle. But North Texas has not been spared from the most recent dry spell, with rainfall falling below average in the first three months of 2022. Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist for the water development board, said Tarrant County had a “terrible January,” with only one inch of rain across the county.

The most recent drought map, produced by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

“As bad as things have been, with rainfall being below average in February and March as well, it’s been quite a bit better than in January,” Wentzel said. “This year, I’m greatly encouraged that we’re trending up.” 

Still, Tarrant County and most of North Texas remain in “severe drought,” where pasture conditions are very poor and wildfire danger is high, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Ninety-five percent of the county is already in extreme drought, according to the most recent drought monitor map

Under extreme drought conditions, soil moisture is very low, decreased yields for crops are typically reported and the need for supplemental nutrients for livestock increases. 

So far, the Tarrant Regional Water District – the water supplier to Fort Worth, Arlington, Mansfield and several other large customers in 11 counties – reports that its water supply storage is holding steady at about 90% full. The district’s main water sources include Lake Bridgeport, Eagle Mountain Lake, Cedar Creek Reservoir and Richland Chambers Reservoir. 

Thanks to the high water supply numbers, neither the water district nor Fort Worth have entered the first stage of their drought contingency plans. Total combined water supply would have to drop below 75% full for the water district for its customers to enter Stage 1, or the Water Watch stage, of a drought. 

Other factors that could lead the district to enter Stage 1 include water demand approaching the limits of supply, contamination of the water supply or parts of the water delivery system approaching capacity.

Rachel Ickert, chief water resources officer for the district, said their predictive modeling – based on data from the National Weather Service and state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon – doesn’t show their reservoirs or lakes entering drought conditions this summer. 

“We’re still hoping to get at least some rain in the spring,” Ickert said. “Our forecasts don’t show us getting to Stage 1 drought conditions until maybe in the fall, but each time it rains, we are seeing that (timeline) shift even further out.” 

Track the Texas drought

Check the U.S. Drought Monitor map for Texas, which is updated each Thursday with the most recent rainfall and soil data. You can select different counties, including Tarrant, for more detailed information.

Tarrant Regional Water District releases daily reports on the status of its water supplies, including reservoirs and lakes. 

The Texas Water Development Board releases a weekly report on the state’s water outlook. 

All public utility agencies are required to submit drought contingency plans to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said Temple McKinnon, the director of water use, projections and planning for the Texas Water Development Board. No standardized trigger compels every agency to react in the same way to drought conditions, she added. 

Texas faces the worst threat from widespread summer drought among the lower 48 states, according to a 2015 analysis by Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that reports on climate science. By 2050, the state could see an increase in severity of drought by about 75 percent, according to the organization’s findings. 

With population booming in Texas, McKinnon said all regional groups tasked with planning future water demand and supply will take recent census data into account when anticipating how to react to a worst case scenario, McKinnon said. 

“The planning process produces a document that plans for supplies should the worst drought recorded happen again statewide,” she said. “That was generally the conditions in the 1950s, which was a really extreme drought, and 10 years ago, we had a pretty bad drought. We’re coming up with plans for when it’s really, really bad, and what are people going to do about it?” 

Mary Gugliuzza, a spokeswoman for Fort Worth’s water department, confirmed that the city has not entered the first stage of its own drought response plan. The goal of the first stage would be to reduce water use by 5%, and discourage hosing of paved areas, prohibiting the use of outdoor sprinkler systems between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and limiting landscape watering to a twice-per-week schedule. The water department already assigns watering days outside of the drought plan.

Unusually high rainfall amounts at Lake Bridgeport since 2015 have translated to higher levels of water storage that will help the region during this dry period, Gugliuzza said.

“We’ve been fortunate in that regard,” Gugliuzza said. “But we’re back in a drought, and we just don’t know how long or severe this is going to get.”

In the meantime, Tarrant County is preparing for increased wildfire risks by implementing a ban on outdoor burning on April 5 that will last through at least July. Last month, a set of wildfires in Eastland – just under 100 miles from Fort Worth – burned more than 45,000 acres, destroyed 50 homes and killed a sheriff’s deputy helping residents evacuate. Haze from the fires caused brown skies in Fort Worth. 

Closer to home, a large grass fire in Kennedale burned between 75 to 100 acres in February. Officials from the Texas A&M Forest Service say the largest wildfire threats will remain in west and south Texas through early May thanks to extremely dry vegetation,increased wind speeds, above normal temperatures and low humidity.

May, the wettest meteorological month for most of Texas and Tarrant County, could bring the rainfall that Texas needs to weather the drought, Wentzel said. 

“Nothing is lost, nothing is hopeless until you get past May and you’re still in drought,” Wentzel said. “Then that hope begins to fade. Other parts of the country talk about April showers, May flowers. In Texas, we get our bluebonnets earlier than that. May is not for flowers – it’s for showers.”

Fort Worth will continue to keep an eye on drought conditions and step up its public outreach to make sure residents and its water customers – including Tarrant County cities like Southlake, Keller, North Richland Hills and more – are aware of the situation, Gugliuzza said. 

The water district encourages residents to conserve water now to lessen the pressure on water resources during more extreme drought conditions, Ickert said. 

“We need to conserve, and we need to use water wisely, and we’ll just keep an eye on it,” she said. “The more we conserve, the more we push off not only the big projects (like reservoirs), but the longer before we’re in some kind of drought condition that would require action.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley SamselEnvironmental Reporter

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...

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