Sep 21, 2023 - News

Central Texas trees stressed amid drought

Sad trees along the Latta Branch Greenbelt. Photo: Nicole Cobler/Axios

That's not fall foliage you're seeing. Brown and red canopies across Austin are a sign of trees under stress amid an exceptional drought.

Why it matters: Severe drought can have a long-term impact on trees, and we won't fully understand the damage caused by this summer's drought for another year or two, experts say.

What they're saying: The summer's extreme heat and low rainfall have taken their toll, said Jonathan Motsinger, Central Texas operations department head for the Texas A&M Forest Service.

  • "Trees are changing, but not necessarily for the better," Motsinger tells Axios.

What's happening: Some of the trees that are turning brown won't survive, but others will drop their leaves early to cut off nutrients to conserve water.

  • For example, bald cypress trees typically need to be in a wet environment and will drop their leaves in harsh conditions.
  • Meanwhile, non-native trees are especially prone to stress, according to Motsinger.

The big picture: Beyond this summer's drought, extreme weather in recent years has put Central Texas trees under tremendous stress.

  • "We had a drought at the end of last summer and into the winter. Then we had the ice storm that came through," Motsinger said. "Our trees are really suffering from just one thing on top of another."
A tree toppled over power lines on Feb. 1, 2023 in Austin. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Be smart: Even under water restrictions, you can help your trees by watering once a week.

  • Run a soaker hose or just a watering hose turned on low while moving it around under the canopy.
  • "Slow, deep watering" is key, Motsinger said. "Just running a yard water sprinkler for a half an hour isn't going to provide the kind of water a tree needs."
  • A 5-gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom can also help trees soak up water, Motsinger said.

Plus: Know the signs of a dead tree, which should be removed as soon as possible for safety. Some examples include:

  • Bark that's sloughing off, cracking or peeling.
  • Bores in the bark and sawdust at the base of the tree, which could be caused by insects coming into a dead or severely stressed tree.
  • Woodpecker damage to the trees in conjunction with bores or peeling bark.

Of note: "Sometimes it's best to wait until next spring to see what happens," Motsinger added. "Trees are resilient. A lot of times they surprise us."

What's next: National Weather Service forecasters said yesterday there is some hope for increased rain chances this weekend and into next week, but the drought is likely to continue for several months.


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