Exceptional drought hits hard during typical monsoon season

A map showing the current drought conditions across Texas, with “severe” and “exceptional” droughts covering large parts of Presidio and Brewster counties. Graphic courtesy of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

FAR WEST TEXAS — The tri-county is seeing some of its driest conditions in years, with large swaths of Presidio and Brewster counties declared to be in “exceptional drought,” the highest category on the drought monitor. And while the dry season may just be a fluke, a steady warming of Texas temperatures is likely to impact precipitation in the future. Meanwhile, ranches and farms are feeling the pressure of this year’s dry season, and fire chiefs in the area are on edge that any spark could set off an intense wildfire.

The exceptionally dry monsoon season this year is likely “just bad luck” associated with natural variability in the system, according to Mike Crimmins, a climate scientist at University of Arizona and expert with Climate Assessment for the Southwest, an organization that studies monsoons.

This year, the “mid-level monsoon ridge” is not in its usual position due to an active U.S. weather pattern, which is keeping moisture from pushing north out of Mexico. That weather is also pulling dry air toward Texas, suppressing West Texas’ monsoons further and preventing the vital summer rain the area relies on.

Crimmins dug into historic rainfall data for the Chisos Basin in Big Bend during monsoon season, June through August. While there does not appear to be a long term trend towards drying, data revealed 2020 is the driest monsoon season on record for the Chisos.

Matt Salerno, a forecaster at the Midland office of the National Weather Service, observed similar rainfall shortages. Typically, more precipitation falls during the months of May and June, but even in August, the area is supposed to be receiving an inch to two inches.

Instead, “We’ve seen months where we’ve gone less than a tenth of an inch in most areas,” Salerno said about this year’s weather. “It’s been especially bad between Marfa, Alpine and the Big Bend.”

As Texas state climatologist and director for the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University, Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon has observed a trend of higher than normal temperatures, announcing in July that the state is now averaging 3 degrees above normal, with the western half of Texas reaching 3-6 degrees above normal. “There’s no significant precipitation trend,” he said, “but it’s been getting warmer.”

Even without a precipitation trend now, computer models are fairly consistently predicting more of a decrease in precipitation in the Trans-Pecos region compared to most of the rest of the state, Nielsen-Gammon told The Big Bend Sentinel, with steadily drier conditions for West Texas kicking in around the end of the 20th century.

Exceptional drought is supposed to be rare; occurring 2% of the time, but climate trends predict they will become more common over time. The last time Presidio and Brewster counties saw exceptional drought conditions was in May of 2012, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which maintains the drought monitor map.

“Areas of West Texas experiencing significant rainfall deficits (4 to 8 inches) have been increasing during the past 90 days,” said TCEQ spokesman Brian McGovern. Aside from a lack of rainfall, extreme heat and drying winds are contributing factors that have “stressed crops and degraded rangeland conditions,” he said.

“In the Trans-Pecos region of western Texas, the August 2019 to July 2020 period was the warmest on record—according to NOAA. Average temperatures continued to be above normal (2°F to 8 °F ) across Far West Texas,” the state agency said.

“It’s hot, it’s dry, I’m scared,” said Marfa Fire Chief Gary Mitschke. “Even with a little bit of rain, we get a lightning strike with some wind and it’s going to run hot and run fast, and hopefully that won’t happen.”

The fire chief is grateful there haven’t been any major fire-starts this season, but is a little baffled about why, given the extreme conditions. He watches the weather forecast daily, noting that “it’s about as bad as it was back when we had the big fires in 2011. It is really, really dry right now.”

The year started off wet in West Texas, giving the area a surplus of rainfall, above normal. But as the summer wore on, a deficit crept in, and grew to the intense conditions it sits at today.

“The drought raises the fire danger of the area, it decreases the moisture of the soils, stops crops from growing very well,” said Salerno. “It basically can be dealing with water shortages, reservoir levels going down, and also it’s just bad for farming purposes and ranching because without adequate rainfall, crops yield is going to be poor and so, it’s been a bad season overall for growing.”

Bobby McKnight, a rancher in Fort Davis, said drought conditions have been hitting his business. “For us, a drought is our worst enemy. These hot days, you run out of forage for your cattle and end up having to ship them and cut down on your cattle. It’s the hardest thing for all of us.”

“We live in the Trans-Pecos, and yes it’s dry out here, but the last few years have been exceptional. I can’t remember a time in my career being quite this dry. We’ve got country that has not made grass. Ultimately you just have to de-stock,” he said, and, “At some point the country won’t support them and it’s time to go.”

Small nonfarm businesses in the tri-counties became eligible this week for Small Business Association low-interest federal disaster loans due to the drought conditions. The loans cover businesses impacted directly by the drought, as well as those businesses that depend on directly impacted operations. Farmers and ranchers can access other assistance through the Farm Service Agency.

“Climate projections have really struggled with how the monsoon may change in the future, and I am not sure if this summer is a harbinger of future monsoons or just part of natural variability,” said Crimmins. “What we can be confident about is that this summer is hotter than it would be without climate change. Dry monsoon seasons are also warmer than average, but climate change is making these seasons warmer than they would be otherwise. This drives increased evapotranspiration and can lead to increased drought stress on vegetation and water resources, making the precious rain we do get, get sucked back out in the atmosphere.”

“We need September and October, which are normally wet months for our region, so we’re hoping we’ll get precipitation that we need to help our drought situation out here,” Salerno said. “It’s been pretty bad out there, pretty abysmal; so we’re hoping.”