HOUSTON (AP) - A dry winter that is on track to making the record books has sent portions of Texas, including Houston and Fort Worth, back into severe drought, raising concerns about wildfires and the health of wheat crops and tree farms, climatologists said Thursday.
September and November could be the driest of those months since 1950 and among the top five driest on record, State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said. And not much more rain is expected this winter or spring since the El Nino pattern meteorologists had counted on for some moisture fizzled out almost before it began.
El Nino is characterized by unusually warm temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. La Nina comes from unusually cool temperatures there. El Nino usually brings rain to Texas and dryer conditions to the North. La Nina typically does the opposite.
While Texas had largely been spared by the devastating drought that has parched much of the Midwest and areas in the South, it never fully recovered from the historic dry spell in 2011 that forced ranchers to sell off their cattle, made hay prices skyrocket, turned reservoirs into muddy puddles and prevented rice farmers in South Texas from getting enough water to irrigate their fields. Now, the lack of rain again puts the state in a perilous situation.
"Normally, by this time in most of the state, the ground is taking up a lot of moisture and the temperatures are cool enough for the ground to stay moist for most of the winter," Nielsen-Gammon said. "But in a lot of parts of the state, it simply hasn't rained much in the past couple of months, so things are as dry as they are during the summer."
As a result, reservoirs are not refilling, and some are even dropping, which is unusual for winter in Texas, Nielsen-Gammon added.
The U.S. Drought Monitor's latest map, released Thursday, shows nearly 55 percent of Texas was in a severe drought, up from just over 40 percent last week. A severe drought is the third of five stages of drought reported by the Drought Monitor.
About 24.5 percent of Texas, including Houston and Fort Worth, is now in an extreme drought, the worst stage, up from 23 percent last week. Overall, more than 80 percent of the state is in some form of drought, a 5 percent increase from a week ago.
"We keep waiting for a decent rainstorm to appear in the forecast, but it doesn't look like there's any in the next week," Nielsen-Gammon said.