HOUSTON – The rain that started trickling into Texas in the fall may finally be making a dent in Dallas, but the rest of the massive state is still a long way off from being out of a historic drought, and climate experts are warning against any premature partying.
"It's still a very tenuous situation," said National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy. "Water concerns are a high priority. If we have a dry spring and a hot summer it will be a very perilous situation."
The good news comes from the U.S. Drought Monitor map, a weekly analysis of dryness in the country. It indicated Thursday that the Dallas-Fort Worth region and a swath of North Texas stretching to the state's border with Oklahoma and Arkansas are officially out of drought for the first time since July. As a result, about 6.4 million people in the nation's fourth most-populous urban area will enjoy fuller lakes and greener trees.
But this makes up less than 5 percent of Texas, and the downside is t hat the same data shows that parts of the state still in severe or exceptional drought has actually increased in the past week by 2 percent to 27.36 percent. In addition, almost 60 percent of the state is in some form of severe drought.
"Texas is so big you can't talk about the whole state in generalized terms," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center who helps draft the map. "As you go into summer again some of these areas are still very prone because of the damage that's been done."
The Drought Monitor is a map that is compiled by the University of Nebraska's National Drought Mitigation Center in cooperation with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and several other agencies. Meteorologists and climate experts look at everything from rainfall to soil saturation to create the map, and sometimes look at information dating back months and years, Fuchs said.
The trend in Dallas is encouraging, he said, but he noted North Texas was the last area of the state to fall into drought, so recovery was easier.
"Does it help? Yes, it does. But does it mean conditions are where they were pre-drought? No," Fuchs said.
The drought in Texas, parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana began about a year ago, and some areas have been getting less than half the normal amount of rainfall.
For Texas, the situation has been especially dire because of its size. The state makes up nearly 7 percent of the land mass of the Lower 48, and the drought's severity has impacted everything from cattle numbers to bird migration and the health of the Gulf of Mexico. Ranchers have culled their herds, likely driving up future beef prices, while a devastated hay crop in the south has caused hay prices to spike.
The drought's impact will be felt for years, Fuchs said. In Texas, for example, ranchers reduced their herd size by an average of 38 percent — or between 600,000 to 800,000 head of cattle — causing a 12 percent to 16 percent drop in the nation's supply. It will take several years of calving, restocking and importing cattle to get the numbers back up.
Nebraska, meanwhile, had a good hay crop this year. Farmers there are trucking their hay south to sell for a high price, leaving some of the state's own ranchers high and dry, Fuchs said. In Missouri, there are reports of cattle farmers selling off their herds because they can't buy hay at the steep prices driven by the southern dilemma, he added.
"And now you start looking at how it trickles through the country, not only the region," Fuchs said.
Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said it's encouraging that the North Texas soil is now saturated, and he thinks the region's hay crop could be decent this season. But in parts of West and Central Texas, where some rain helped with an initial planting of winter wheat, an onset of drier conditions and dust is harming the crop, another key ingredient for ranching.
"I think things are going as well as we could hope for," Nielsen-Gammon said, but added, "The key going forward is to manage our supplies under the assumption that we're going to have a second year of drought."
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