TCEQ Keeps an Eye on the Sky – and its Drought Monitor
The state of Texas isn’t always in a drought – it just feels that way. From brown lawns, wildfires, restriction notices, and even sometimes water shortages, droughts make their presence known.
There are times – and this year is shaping up to be one of them – when it seems we just can’t catch a break.
Drought is one of the most common and costly types of natural disasters in the United States. It affects our economy, the environment, and our day-to-day lives in many ways – limiting water usage, scarring natural habitats, and triggering health and safety problems.
In general, drought is considered a prolonged period of below normal precipitation. Scientists consider factors such as rainfall amounts, vegetation conditions, soil moisture, and reservoir levels when characterizing droughts.
For the rest of us, a drought just means it’s really, really hot! Not to mention dry, of course.
Throughout the Southwest, persistent droughts have intensified the threat of wildfires. In Texas, more than 3,000 fires have already been reported statewide this year, covering in excess of 400,000 acres. The Das Goat fire spread through Medina County in late March and roughly 3,000 acres recently burned in a fire at the U.S. Army’s Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis, where 27,000 acres of ranges and wildlands are used for training.
Once again, comparisons for the upcoming summer invariably point to 2011, when 8,443 fires were recorded from January to March, torching more than 600,000 acres in all. For the year, a whopping 32,899 wildfires burned more than four million acres.
Wildfires were also quite common in 2006, 2008 and 2009; unfortunately, as in those years, 2022 follows last year’s wet summer, when rainfall over several months led to abundant grass growth, much of which froze during Winter Storm Uri. Just like 2011, that sequence of events produced dry, dead vegetation – ideal conditions for wildfires to erupt.
“Water” are we to do?
Scientists, including hydrologists and meteorologists, are obsessed with water – too much of it and you get life-threatening floods. Not enough, and well, you get the situation we find ourselves in year-in, year-out.
Part of these scientist’s job is to forecast drought – and if they’re successful, it gives policymakers and communities a chance to develop additional water sources that spell relief. These scientists keep a close eye on the symptoms of a coming drought and monitor rainfall and other atmospheric conditions continually.
What is a drought monitor?
As anyone who has lived in Texas very long is well aware, weather patterns – and thus water supply demands – can vary dramatically. With that in mind, TCEQ uses a drought monitor to keep up with what’s happening across the state.
TCEQ’s system is based on the U.S. Drought Monitor, released each Thursday, which features five classifications for varying stages of drought. TCEQ then takes that information and publishes a map specifically illustrating drought conditions in Texas.
When dry conditions are prolonged, they put a strain on all water users, including water right permit holders and public water systems. Abnormally dry conditions indicate that an area is either going into or coming out of drought conditions; moderate drought conditions typically are seen in low streamflow and reservoir levels; and the worst condition, exceptional drought, appears in the form of widespread damages to crops and pastures, and in outright water shortages.
According to the most recent drought map, as of June 7, 2022, 66 percent of Texas – fully two thirds of the land mass! – was experiencing moderate or worse drought conditions. Worse yet, scientists project those conditions to persist.
TCEQ takes the information from its drought monitor maps to anticipate changing weather conditions that may affect our various programs and the systems we oversee. For example, public water systems may require water use restrictions during drought conditions to protect drinking water supplies. Also, municipalities may restrict lawn watering on designated days only.
Tips for helping in your area
Did you know that you can use the U.S. Drought Monitor if you notice your area is depicted as having drought conditions? Here are a few things you can do to stay proactive:
- Check with your water provider for any water use restrictions
- Be weather aware and hold off on watering your lawn if there is rain in the forecast
- Fix any leaking pipes or faucets
- Follow your local burn guidelines or “burn bans”
You can learn more about the U.S. Drought map on their website: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/About/WhatistheUSDM.aspx.
The most recent drought map and information on TCEQ’s drought response activities are available at https://www.tceq.texas.gov/response/drought.
As noted above, drought conditions present an increased risk of wildfires. To help, the Texas Division of Emergency Management has provided resources to help you reduce the threat of wildfires at https://www.ready.gov/wildfires.