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Record rains only put small dent in Texas drought

Despite record-setting downpours in some areas of Texas offering temporary relief to scorched parts of the state, drought conditions persist in some of the hardest-hit areas.

By Julián Aguilar, The Texas Newsroom

The  latest statistics from the U.S. Drought Monitor show about 95% of Texas is still at some level of drought. Conditions are updated every Thursday using data collected up to 7 a.m. Central Time Tuesday and can range from abnormally dry (the less severe category) up to extreme drought and exceptional drought.

Though Texas has been under a prolonged dry spell, state weather and climate officials said there has been some improvement across Texas following the recent storms. The percentage of the state that was in the “exceptional drought” category dipped by more than half to 12.4% from last week’s 26.5%.

“That’s a definite improvement. Mainly those [improved areas] are in the northern, northeastern parts of the state where the heaviest rain fell,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and director of the Southern Regional Climate Center at Texas A&M University. “That's also an area that was mainly experiencing shorter term drought so it’s easier for one significant rainfall to make a big difference.”

The North Texas region saw double-digit rainfall earlier this week, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to include the region in a  state disaster declaration he issued Tuesday for 23 counties. The area saw what’s considered a one-in-a-thousand years weather event, the Dallas Morning News reported. About 32% of Dallas County was in an “exceptional drought” last week but the rainfall wiped that out and set it back to zero.

In Travis County, where  rainfall flooded some creeks and streets in Austin, about 89% of the region is in an extreme or exceptional drought. That’s down from 99% last week, according to the drought monitor.

The rainfall also provided very modest relief to parts of the Rio Grande Valley, where local officials earlier this month implemented mandatory water restrictions. That came after the Falcon Reservoir, which feeds water to communities north and south of the Rio Grande,  fell below 10% capacity. Zapata and Starr counties improved only slightly on the drought index, and the reservoir is now at about 12% capacity.

In Val Verde County, the Amistad Reservoir was at about 30% full in mid-August, which was about 18% less than it was six months ago, according to state data. It’s risen to 35% but Nielsen-Gammon said the improvements aren’t enough to return the reservoirs to previous levels.

“They will probably end the month better than they started, but they still won't have improved enough to the two things back where they were in the spring even,” he said.

Other parts of the state saw no change. Despite about two inches of rainfall falling in San Antonio over the last seven days, 100% of the Bexar County area is still under drought conditions this week. Nielsen-Gammon said that the stretch of Texas from San Angelo to Abilene and other parts of the Northern Edwards Plateau have received little to no rain this month.

Deborah Bathke, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, said next week’s drought data could be slightly better for Texas because it will factor in rainfall that fell after the Tuesday cutoff for weekly data gathering.

“When rain falls it takes a while to work its way through the water cycle falls,” she said. “It either absorbs into the ground and some of it may trickle down to recharge groundwater, or some of it goes into the rivers and streams and reservoirs and things like that,” she said. “Some people would say, ‘Oh, well, we had rain, we need to completely wipe out all of the drought.’ [But] it takes a while to realize what that effect is going to be on the system.”