90-Day Outlook: Big Bend Insight Into Big Drought

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Having just returned from my annual motorcycle trip to the Big Bend region of Texas (Lajitas, Terlingua, Big Bend National Park and Ft. Davis), I couldn’t help but notice the conditions brought on by the exceptional drought that has been plaguing this area for so many seasons.

Dry and brown — the vegetation around Ft. Davis, Texas, not me. Photo: Dave Gorham

On U.S. Highway 67 between Alpine and Marfa I could practically hear the branches of the tumbleweeds crackle as they crossed my path. On Texas 166, the Ft. Davis “loop” that leads to the McDonald Observatory, I could easily visualize how a still-smoldering cigarette butt could set the place ablaze — again. On F.M. 170 between Presidio and Lajitas I noticed the same thing I notice every year — the Rio Grande is low and everything is brown. YourWeatherBlog has written about the Texas drought before (here, here and here), as well as the drought-driven wildfires (here), but when one steps away from the computer keyboard and steps into the drought itself, one’s perspective will change.

But I also noticed a few other things on my trip: mainly, rivers and streams in areas leading into the Big Bend were fuller (that’s not to say full) than I remember in many years. Areas like the Texas Hill Country, still in extreme drought conditions, actually surprised me with either water running faster and higher than usual, or with water where I don’t remember water in recent years. Water in beds usually dry and cracked could be seen from the overpasses of I-10 (even in places where the speed limit was posted at 80 mph, which means I was going slightly faster). Places on F.M. 170 near Lajitas — where I’ve never seen water in 20 visits — had trickles of water. To be sure, there wasn’t  much — I remember thinking, Will that be dry in two days? Or maybe three? Recent rains since the first of the year are to thank, of course.

Many parts of West Texas are still classified as being in extreme drought. Image: NOAA, et al

What’s the outlook? Not bad news, for now. With La Niña waning and expected to be replaced by El Niño as we head into the summer months (depending on which computer models you favor, we may see a full-fledged El Niño by June or no later than August), it looks like we’re moving into a more normal weather pattern with normal/near-normal rainfall amounts. Compare that to last year at this time with a strong La Niña phase and the pronounced lack of rain across the southern United States.

Near—normal rainfall for areas west of San Antonio will be welcome relief where anything will be better than nothing. Image: ImpactWeather

What’s this mean for my 2013 February trip to the Texas Big Bend? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, but with near—normal rainfall amounts it might be a little wetter and a little greener. I remember a kayak trip down the Rio Grande near Big Bend National Park in the mid ’90’s. I remember blooming bluebonnets along F.M. 170 a few times in the later ’90’s (if memory serves) and it sure is an amazing place with a little bit of rainfall. Of course, this area used to be under sea water 135 million years ago, so something a little more than today and a lot less than then would be nice.

Dry and crispy: It's easy to see how a smoldering cigarette or match could have devestating results in West Texas, as this shot of some of my motorcycle hooligan friends between Study Butte and Alpine reveals. Most people in this area understand that county-wide burn bans would include fireworks. Most people, but not ALL people. Photo: Dave Gorham

The South Rim of Big Bend National Park. Did you know Big Bend National Park is the least visited national park in the United States? (And they say that like it's a bad thing.) Photo: Wiki Travel

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