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About that drought …

Recent rains are just a drop in the bucket.

Carol Cole-Frowe October 19th, 2011

The recent rains are appreciated, but it’s just a drop in a very big bucket. About 80 percent of the state, including Central Oklahoma, continues to be in a persistent, expansive, “extreme” drought.

The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association issued Oct. 11, showed the entire state is in a “severe” drought, or worse. Fifty-nine percent of Oklahoma is in an “exceptional” drought, the worst category. Three months ago, about 43 percent of the state had the “exceptional” drought label.

Current long-range predictions have the drought continuing and intensifying, with a similar weather pattern predicted for the fall and winter months.

Gary McManus, associate climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, said the state’s current weather pattern of now back-to-back La Niñas reminds him of the state’s last exceptionally bad drought in the 1950s.

right, Lake Hefner, just before summer hit

“For most of the state, things are worse to catastrophic,” he said.

Dust Bowl déjà vu?
How bad is the drought? The Oklahoma County Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service is offering a field day this week to help agricultural producers stay in business, the devastating dry spell is characterized as the state’s worst “since the Dust Bowl” by Ray Ridlen, a local horticulture and agriculture educator, and state Rep. Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs, recently urged Gov. Mary Fallin to temporarily lift regulations to help farmers and ranchers.

This summer’s drought and heat wave repeatedly have invited comparisons to the disastrous Dust Bowl of the late 1920s and ’30s that sent black dust clouds sweeping the Plains.

Whenever a drought begins to occur, it often brings up painful memories and images of “Okies” fleeing to California, since long-term periods of drought are part of Oklahoma’s story. Where’s Woody Guthrie when you need him?

Extended, devastating droughts that lasted for several consecutive years occurred in the 1910s, ’30s, ’50s and ’60s, sometimes broken up by a wetter year.

McManus said there is no indication that the area is heading into one of the more devastating long-term droughts.

The state has enjoyed above average rainfall years since the late 1970s, with a mild dip in the mid 2000s.

Download a PDF chart tracking the state's precipitation tendencies since 1900.

“We have had a generation that has grown up with wetter than normal conditions,” McManus said.

The brutal, historically hot summer set records across the state for 100-plus degree days. Foundations cracked. Lakes shrank. Trees died. More than 20 people died statewide. The drought continued to expand and worsen. Mercifully, September came, and temperatures broke. 

Now the concern is that the state may set new records for low moisture.

Statewide, rainfall totals from Jan. 1 through Oct. 12 average 17.59 inches — about 12 inches below normal — according to the Oklahoma Mesonet. It’s still the second driest year since 1921.

La Niña returns
Blame this year’s rain deficit on the La Niña phenomenon. And probably next year’s, too.

In early September, the weather service’s Climate Prediction Center announced that El Niño’s counterpart had returned.

That news is especially dire for farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma, who lost between $1.6 and $2 billion as a result of the drought.

“Another year like this would be very bad news,” McManus said.

La Niña, which means “little girl,” causes cooler than normal water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

“It shifts the jet stream further to the north,” McManus said.

right, A dead fish at Lake Hefner.

During a La Niña, the easterly trade winds strengthen and cold upwelling along the equator and the west coast of South America intensifies. “La Niña winters often see drier than normal conditions across the southern tier of the United States,” according to the NOAA website.

It’s not that storm systems can’t still come through; they do.

“They just don’t happen often enough,” McManus said. “We’ve seen these events in the past. They’re great, but they don’t come in succession. The key is to get something that follows up and reinforces it.”

This year, much of the sparse rain that fell disappeared before it could even become runoff.“You have a big, dry sponge, and it has to fill up the little ponds first. (Rain) falls on the dirt and goes (away),” said Ken Komiske, Norman utilities director, who manages that city’s water supply, quality and distribution.

McManus said forecasting is tough because there is no anticipating how many storm systems make it to drought-stricken Oklahoma and Texas.

“It’s more likely that it will be warm and dry, but it’s not set in stone. You look at these large scientific phenomena to help you out,” he said.

Water supplies still sufficient
Lake Hefner dropped to its lowest level on Oct. 8. Sailboats are stuck in the cracked, muddy bottom where they are moored and fish are dying in the receding water pools.

However, the city is not in bad shape, as far as drinking water is concerned.

Besides Lake Hefner, Oklahoma City’s primary drinking water sources include Lake Atoka and McGee Creek in southeastern Oklahoma and Canton Lake in northwest Oklahoma.

Lake Thunderbird provides about 70 percent of Norman’s drinking water, as well as water to Del City and Midwest City. It was at 1,034 feet — or 74 percent of the conservation pool — on Oct. 13.

When Lake Thunderbird reaches 1,029 feet, the Central Oklahoma  Master Conservancy District, which manages the lake, can require mandatory water restrictions and limit pumping to its cities as necessary, said Randy Worden, district manager.

“We have asked our cities for voluntary reductions, and they have followed through,” Worden said.

The balance of Norman’s water comes from wells pulling from the Garber-Wellington Aquifer and water purchased from Oklahoma City in peak months.

Edmond’s water comes from Arcadia Lake, the Garber- Wellington Aquifer and water purchased from Oklahoma City.

Arcadia Lake’s conservation pool was at 95 percent as of Oct. 13.

Conservation still urged
Norman rescinded mandatory water rationing in mid-September. Edmond’s water rationing plan expired Oct. 1. Oklahoma City lifted its water rationing in mid- August, but officials encourage wise water usage.

McManus said most people still don’t realize the importance of conserving water.

“How bad it is … is in the eye of the beholder,” McManus said.

And because residents are only just realizing the importance of its limited supply of clean, clear water, how society would deal with an extended drought is a concern.

Some homeowners are implementing water-saving measures like landscaping with drought-tolerant species and adding rain barrels to collect runoff to supplement irrigation needs.

Komiske said water rationing isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it can be beneficial.

“It’s better for your lawn. It’s better for your wallet,” he said, about watering every other day. Watering a lawn longer and on fewer days makes grass roots go deeper and makes a lawn hardier and healthier.

And as far as emerging from the state’s deepening drought, keep your eyes to the skies.

“It’s not over yet,” McManus said.

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