News & Politics

Texas Drought Spawning Fires and Dust-Bowl Like Conditions

Some Texas communities have less than 90 days of water left.

Like California, Texas is on the verge of an epic drought that can devastate the state's livestock and agriculture industries and force consumers to ration water in the next several months. Moreover, the threat of dust storms and wildfires continue to grow as the drought continues into the Spring and Summer.

About 90 percent of Texas is currently under drought conditions, and the state's northern panhandle and southwest regions are experiencing 'catastrophic' conditions. Northern Texas is already nine inches behind in rainfall for this year. This historic drought began in October 2010. In northwest Texas, which includes the panhandle, the past 43 months are the driest in recorded history.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is keeping tabs on where the water is scarce enough to draw concern. It has found that 34 communities could run out of water within three months. Moreover, a dozen municipal areas are reporting that they have 45 days or less of water.

Fast-moving fires are already starting to move through Texas, destroying homes and forcing residents to flee. In the panhandle, more than 300 firefighters recently contained a fire that raged for five days. Fanned by 40-mph winds, the fire destroyed more than 200 homes, displacing 700 people. Almost 2,600 acres have burned.

Farmers are starting to report conditions mimicking the 'dust bowl' era of the 1930s. The spring rains that typically tamp down the silt and clay (collectively dust) have not been seen in four years. Last year, as the land dried up, high winds continued to blow into the hot summer. Those blowing winds disintegrated the soil, taking what little moisture there is out of the earth. Soil quality is reportedly so poor that even when the rains do come, the accompanying winds are still able to blow about what little moistened soil there is. Farmers are calling these wind storms “haboobs,” a term reportedly brought back by Iraqi War veterans who experience similar conditions in the arid Middle East.

When a storm charges, winds move in the opposite of the direction of travel, and also from all directions into the storm cell. When the storm collapses and releases precipitation, those wind directions reverse, moving outward from the storm and gusting the strongest  in the direction of the storm's travel.

When this strong down burst of air reaches the ground, it creates a wall of sediment that precedes the storm cloud. At their strongest, haboob winds often travel at more than 60 mph and they may come with very little warning.  

Dust storms can have a devastating effect on crops and livestock. They can also have a negative impact on the health and well being of the people of those near the storms. Another hazardous effect of a dust storm is the reduction in visibility, which typically becomes less than a quarter of a mile or less.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.


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