Aug 25, 2023 - Climate

Austin may see driest summer since 1910

A firefighter works to put out a wildfire during an excessive heat warning on Aug. 8 in Hays County. The area continues to grapple with a prolonged heat wave and drought. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Austin is on track to see the second driest summer on record as drought conditions worsen.

Driving the news: This summer's measly 1.31 inches of rainfall at Camp Mabry — Austin's central weather station — could make this the second driest summer since record-setting 1910, if the area doesn't see more rain before the end of August, National Weather Service meteorologist Keith White tells Axios.

  • The meteorological summer is from June 1 to Aug. 31.

The big picture: Drought conditions continued to worsen this week, with Travis County moving from "extreme drought" to "exceptional drought," the highest drought category, per the U.S. Drought Monitor's latest map out Thursday.

  • Hays and Williamson counties, parts of Caldwell County and much of the Hill Country are also under "exceptional drought" conditions.

Zoom out: More than three-quarters of the state is in drought. Only the far north of the Panhandle and part of the Big Bend region are not experiencing dry conditions.

Of note: The drought monitor map is a snapshot from 8am Tuesday and doesn't take into account the rain in South Texas from Tropical Storm Harold.

Why it matters: Exceptional drought conditions lead to widespread crop and pasture losses, exceptional fire risk, shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells, and water emergencies, according to the National Weather Service.

  • The last time all of Travis County was under the highest level of drought conditions was in 2011. Parts of the area were under exceptional drought conditions last year, according to White.

Between the lines: Climate change is increasing the odds and severity of droughts. Extreme heat, like Texas has seen this summer, increases evaporation and can help drought to form and intensify.

What's happening: The drought has shuttered popular swimming holes, led to wildfires across Central Texas, dried up local wells and stressed aquifers that supply water to millions.

  • Last week, the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the Central Texas water supply, entered Stage 2 of its drought response — urging cutbacks in water usage by 10%-20% — as Lakes Travis and Buchanan dropped to 900,000 acre feet of storage, or 46% of capacity, the lowest levels since 2015. In response, the city of Austin enacted tighter watering restrictions.
  • Jacob's Well has dried up, Blue Hole in Wimberley closed to swimmers for at least two weeks and the Pedernales River has slowed to a trickle in parts. Meanwhile, local officials fear that Barton Springs Pool could see its water flow weaken further.
  • Plus, the dry soil has even caused some home foundations to shift, KVUE reported.

What they're saying: "There's no clear signs of any significant rainfall, and in terms of the drought, we don't really anticipate significant improvements in the drought over the next couple months," White says.

What's next: There are some chances of rain over the next week, and a chance that El Niño could tilt the area's odds toward wetter-than-normal conditions in the winter.

  • "Wintertime isn't really our wettest time of year, so even slightly above normal rainfall wouldn't end our drought," he said. "It could definitely make some improvements … But it would take quite a bit of rain to refill those aquifers and reservoirs and put an end to the long-term drought we've seen."

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