How to handle drought conditions in Texas

September 6, 2023

Learn about the impact of droughts in Texas, the causes, and ways you can get through the next one!

Dry cracked ground and corn during a Texas drought

Texas can be a place of extremes; in a single year, we can go from excessive rainfall and flash flooding to extreme drought conditions. Neither are good, but there's something about a drought that feels especially brutal. They are often long, drawn-out, hot, and of course, bone-dry. 

But what causes droughts, exactly? How likely are they in Texas and more importantly, what can you do during a drought? That's what we'll discuss in this blog - read on! 

What's the definition of a drought? 

It isn't uncommon to endure weeks on end without rain, the burning summer sun shining down without relent, and comment, "Boy, this is some drought we're having. We need rain!" But what defines a drought exactly? What is the meteorlogical definition? 

According to the National Weather Service, a drought is defined as "a deficiency in precipitation over an extended period." However, there are a few different definitions for a drought based on the context. 

Meteorological drought. Defined by departure from normal rainfall or precipitation. 

Agricultural drought. Defined by a lack of soil moisture content or rainfall to support crop growth. 

Hydrological drought. Defined by surface water (lakes, creeks, and rivers) levels experiencing below average levels.

Sociological drought. Defined by a lack of precipitation that begins to impact a community's daily life and operations. 

Measuring drought

Droughts are measured in many different ways, depending on the purpose or need. It can actually be quite complicated in some cases, but the following are some of the more common methods used. 

The Palmer Drought Index is meant to convey the balance of supply and demand for water in a given area. While the supply is relatively simple to calculate, "demand" is more complicated. This method is used by many organizations, including NOAA. 

There is also the Standard Precipitation Index, which measures the deviation of precipitation from the average precipitation in a given area within a certain period of time, as well as the Keetch-Byrum Drought Index, which assesses drought in relation to fire danger.
Lastly, there is the Drought Severity and Coverage Index used by the US Drought Monitor. It is intended to create a single, easy-to-understand metric that combines many different factors together. If you visit, this is the metric you'll see. It includes D0 (Abnormally Dry), D1 (Moderate Drought), D2 (Severe Drought), D3 (Extreme Drought), and D4 (Exceptional Drought). 

What causes drought conditions?

Obviously, droughts are caused by a lack of water, but what stops the rain?

General weather patterns. High pressure ridges and domes cause intense heat and prevent thunderstorms from forming and rain from falling. This often becomes a feedback loop of sorts, which can prolong the period of drought.

ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation). El Niño, and the counterpart La Niña, refer to periods of above and below average temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, respectively. These fluctuations can broadly impact the climate across the globe for years at a time by influencing things like jet streams and moisture transport. Depending on the specifics, some regions may become more wet, yet others, more dry. 

Changing climate. Just as the temperature of the Pacific Ocean can influence the macro weather trends of the planet, global temperature can also influence long term weather patterns. The global climate is a vastly complicated process and warming temperatures have downstream effects on things like weather, rainfall, and drought.

Although these changes typically take place over longer periods of time, certain areas that may have only experienced infrequent droughts could start to see that become a more regular occurrence while other areas may begin to experience greater than average rainfall. 

Historical drought conditions in Texas

Droughts are not uncommon in Texas, and it's not uncommon for at least some part of the state to be experiencing some level of drought at any given time of year. That said, some droughts are far, far worse than others. 

In the 1930s, an already depressed economy was hit with a drought that lasted nearly a decade. During the Dust Bowl, much of West Texas faced severe drought for nearly a decade and in the Panhandle, massive dust storms swept the landscape on a regular basis. 

During the years between 1949 and 1957, yet another crushing drought struck the Lone Star State. By 1953, nearly 75% of the state had below-normal rainfall and half of the state was 30 inches below normal rainfall. The result? Half of the farming industry was gone by the end of the decade (from 345,000 to 247,000 farms and ranches), resulting in an estimated $36 billion in direct losses.

More recently, Texas experienced a severe drought from 2010 to 2014. While shorter than some previous major droughts, by some measures it was worse; in September 2011, 100% of the state was at least in moderate drought conditions (D2), and as much as 88% found itself in exceptional drought (D4) - the highest rating by the US Drought Monitor. This cost agricultural producers over $7 billion and made 2011 the driest year on record for Texas - at least for now. 

Dangers of droughts

While there is no doubt that drought conditions impact us on a small scale, their dangers can be much more broad and long-lasting for communities. 

Water supply. Whether your water comes from an underground reservoir or a lake, water supplies require recharging. In some cases, droughts threaten these levels on a short term basis, but a good rainy season can fill things up. However, in some cases demand is high and recharging is slow, which creates long-term sustainability issues for certain reservoirs. Droughts can make this far worse.

Fire danger. Without water, vegetation dries up and dies. This is even more problematic if a drought follows an especially rainy season, which promotes a lot of growth, creating even more fuel for fires. In some cases, all it takes is a tiny spark to set off a major wildfire when drought conditions are severe. 

Agriculture. Droughts can be absolutely devastating to things like crops and livestock. This of course means that farmers and ranchers are directly affected by droughts, but the economic impact can spread far beyond. 

Insect and fungi outbreaks. Drought conditions can sometimes portend insect outbreaks like locusts and certain types of beetles. There is also research that suggests certain types of crop fungi, such as root and stalk rot.

Dealing with droughts in Texas

So what can we do when drought conditions arise? 

Observe community water restrictions. First and foremost, it's important to do your best to observe water restrictions that may be put in place by your community. This could include special restrictions as far as watering lawns or washing cars, but could include water usage recommendations beyond that. 

Reduce water use. While reducing water consumption and waste generally is a great idea, its especially important in times of drought. Here are a number of ways you can help reduce your water consumption:
  • Avoid flushing the toilet unnecessarily.
  • Shower rather than bathing and reduce shower time.
  • Avoid allowing water to run while brushing or shaving.
  • Only operate appliances like dishwashers and clothes washers when they are fully loaded.
  • Don't pre-rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Simply scrape large scraps into the garbage.
  • Consider hand-washing dishes with two containers of water: One for washing and one for rinsing.
  • Clean fruit and vegetables in a pan rather than running them under water.
  • While waiting for a shower to warm up, capture water for other uses. For example, use a bucket to capture and reuse water for watering plants.
  • Avoid using running water to thaw meat and frozen food. Take it out of the freezer the night before and allow it to thaw in the fridge or use the microwave.

Burn bans. During times of drought, it's also likely that your county will issue a burn ban. It's absolutely essential to observe these bans to avoid causing wildfires.

Protect your foundation. In times of drought, it's possible for your home to experience issues with the concrete foundation beneath it. Watering the soil around your foundation can prevent it from shrinking and potentially causing cracks, but it's important to observe water restrictions as well.  

Preventing droughts and water conservation

There is little anyone can do to stop a drought directly - we can't make it rain nor change the weather patterns to more favorable, wet conditions. 

However, our water usage can have an impact on water availability in the long term and make droughts far worse. This is especially important as communities grow and increase dependency on finite resources like rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Even in areas where residents have wells instead of municipal water, it is not unheard of for a well to run dry as water demand in the area increases. 

While such resources recharge naturally, it's often the case that we begin to use water faster than they can realistically recharge and drought conditions amplify that problem. For that reason, it's important to conserve water whenever possible - regardless of drought conditions. 

Consider some of the following methods of conserving water:
  • Regularly check pipes and faucets for leaks and repair as soon as possible. Even a small drop from a faucet can add up to thousands of gallons over time!
  • Use low-volume/efficient appliances.
  • Use variable flow toilets, low volume toilets.
  • Create a compost pile rather than throwing food waste into a garbage disposal in the sink.
  • Consider xeriscaping, or landscaping using native plants that uses less water.
  • Consider rainwater collection for outdoor use, like watering lawns and gardens.
Lastly, you can always do your best to conserve water year-round by practicing some of the same water-saving methods listed in the previous section, even if there aren't currently drought conditions in your area.

Is Texas in a drought right now?

Depending on when you're reading this, it's very possible that your neck of the woods is in a drought - large portions of Texas have been in a drought since 2021. To check on drought conditions in your area, the US Drought Monitor site is a great resource that's easy to understand. 

You can also see a variety of different drought maps on the Texas A&M drought map site

Dry cracked ground during a drought in Texas 

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by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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