Texas Drought on the Decline

Back in late April and early May, media articles appeared that proposed major changes in water policy for Texas. These policy recommendations were, of course, timed for release at the height of Texas' drought. Back then, I advocated for patience:

"The lessons of history for water in Texas are straightforward. Don't panic and make rash decisions, and heed Reagan's wise counsel that also applies to water policy efforts: 'A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth.'  There is often a lag time between when precipitation begins to rebound back up to historical norms and the refill rates of various reservoirs that were drawn down during the worst of the drought. Take the time to wait for this process, which is undeniably underway, before acting. Making water policy during a drought is equivalent to building public infrastructure during an overheated economy, when construction costs are maximized -- common sense is absent, and good value for money is not obtained.

Patience is needed in the Lone Star State on water policy. Avoid the shock doctrine."

Sure enough, the drought has substantially improved. Here are the latest statewide drought conditions.

Compare this to the state of affairs in May, when the entire central portion of the state from north to south was in extreme or exceptional drought. One year ago, 75 percent of the state was in severe drought or worse. Now this is down to 36 percent and falling fast.

The area in and around Wichita Falls and other nearby regions of North Texas is still in extreme or exceptional drought, but the situation may be looking up:

"A windfall of rain in the last half of June, including nearly three inches of rain in one week, has made gardens across North Texas come alive. My squash and zucchini plants -- no bigger than basketballs a few weeks ago -- are now as large as beanbag chairs. Okra plants that were a foot tall on Father's Day come up to my waist, topped with foliage so dense that it hides the ground along the rows. The spacing between my Israeli melon plantings was clear and wide two weeks ago; now it is filled with sprawling vines."

Reservoir levels are still falling around Wichita Falls, albeit slower than they were. As the drought weakens -- and provided it doesn't reboot later this summer/autumn, reservoir levels should eventually stabilize and gradually begin to rebound. As the city considers various measures to further reduce water losses from its reservoirs, scientists at a local drought forum in late June hosted by the Water Development Board and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration were still talking about climate change in the region and its role in current and future droughts:

"Mark Shafer, director of climate services for the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program, offered this warning: 'With climate change, the thing is to be thinking of it and taking it as a real threat and not just kind of dismissing it. The higher temperatures and higher evaporation rates can lead us into these kind of droughts, so that is a big concern.'"

There is no significant trend in annual precipitation for the Wichita Falls region since precipitation records began in 1898. As I noted previously, "indeed, there is weak statistical evidence of a modest increase over this timeframe... rather than getting drier on a three-year basis, the town is getting much wetter. The 36-month running total precipitation is increasing with high statistical confidence at a rate of over 13 inches per century. Same with the 48-month (four-year) running total precipitation. The current four-year period is only the 10th driest on record, and the trend is increasing (again, with high statistical confidence) at about 20 inches per century."

As for temperatures in the Wichita Falls area, there is a recent increasing trend over the past few decades, but overall there are statistically significant declining trends -- yes, cooling trends -- for the average annual and summertime temperatures since temperature records begin in 1924.

Yes, there was a very warm summer in Wichita Falls during 2011, but the overall trend -- which is what we are interested in -- since records begin is towards cooler, not warmer, summers for this region.

Summer maximum temperatures aren't going up, either. There are no significant trends in mean maximum temperatures for June, July, or August in the Wichita Falls area since 1924. Indeed, the correlations are negative, not positive.

While this is a lot of raw data for just one small region of the United States, its presentation serves a useful purpose.

The climate alarmists have focused their attention on Wichita Falls during the drought, and made it out to be a canary in the anthropogenic climate change coalmine (e.g., much like the California drought, sea level rise in the Northeast, etc.). But it is not. Century-long trends are towards cooler annual and summertime temperatures in this region of north Texas, and precipitation trends are either unchanging over time or even increasing. There may be a recent hot, dry trend, but when you look back over the historical record, the climate was generally hotter and drier in the early 20th century. These trends need to be kept front and center when shaping water policy in Texas.