Apr 4, 2022 - News

The Austin area is "starving for rain"

U.S. Drought outlook map

Drought outlook map. Screenshot: U.S. Climate Prediction Center, adapted by Axios

The temperatures have yet not grown scorching, but Austin is headed for what could be a devastating drought.

Why it matters: Central Texas can be pretty darn inhospitable for humankind when water is in short supply.

  • Rainfall is critical for grain growing and the region's industrial operations — as chip manufacturers like Samsung rely on a steady supply of H2O.
  • It's also crucial for replenishing the Highland Lakes, the string of dammed lakes that run northwest of Austin whose economies are built around recreation and tourism.
  • And, of course, we use water to wash our dishes and clothes, to bathe and, at bottom, to live.

At first blush: Austin rainfall year-to-date at first appears to be only a little below average, with accumulation through April 1 this year at 6.10 inches — not a dramatic drop from the normal 7.49 inches.

  • Of note: 1925's record year-to-date low accumulation was only 0.97 inches.

Yes, but: Downpours during a several-day stretch at the end of January and beginning of February accounted for 4.75 inches of total rainfall this year — leaving the greater Austin area feeling otherwise parched.

What they're saying: Those big rainfalls "kind of skew the data," Matt Brady, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service's New Braunfels office, told Axios.

  • "We’ve been really dry outside that one week of rain," he said. Otherwise, "we'd be right near" record lows.
  • A couple months on from those big rains, and "the soil is all dried up," Brady said. "We're starving for rain."

Lake Travis, a key reservoir for Central Texas, is currently 68% full, and 10 feet below its historic average for this time of year.

Zoom out: In an alarming new outlook, the National Weather Service said Thursday that drought conditions are likely to persist and even expand across a vast stretch of the country — including Central Texas.

  • Texas is more prone to drought when La Niña conditions are present in the tropical Pacific Ocean — as they are now — driving the jet stream north and leaving parts of the U.S. especially dry.
  • Meanwhile, Texas' climate is generally growing hotter and drier amid human-induced global warming.

Flashback: During the wretched drought a decade or so ago, which saw record lows in rainfalls, Austin ordered restaurants to serve water only upon request, while restricting lawn-watering, the use of ornamental fountains and car-washing.

A cow looks for a bit of green grass during drought.
A cow looks for a piece of green grass in the bottom of an empty stock tank at a ranch near Manor on in July 2011. Photo: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via USA TODAY NETWORK

None of the ramped-up restrictions from a decade ago are in the offing just now, but the table is set for wide government and utility action should we find ourselves in a super-dry summer.

Our thought bubble: In our politicized COVID-era, expect resistance to water restrictions to emerge should a drought require them.

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