Texas Drought
© Stephen Spillman / Amarillo Globe-News
Troy Skarke talks about the moisture content of his soil at his field in Armstrong County east of Claude. Texas Panhandle residents are experiencing the region's worst drought since 1956, according to a state climatologist.

Mother Nature has sucked the Panhandle dry.

"We lost an inch of water Monday purely from evaporation," said Kent Satterwhite, general manager of the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, referring to the water level of ever-shrinking Lake Meredith.

Out on the farm, it's the same tale.

Troy Skarke stood by a planter on his farm north of Claude ready to get sorghum seed in the ground Tuesday but was thwarted by dry earth.

"This needs to be running this week, but it won't be," he said.

Around the region, there is little green as though winter is still waiting to become spring, contrasting sharply with temperatures in the 90s and fierce south winds. Those are some of the obvious signs of not just a dry period but the "exceptional" drought the area is experiencing.

"Conditions are rapidly deteriorating," said State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. "The entire area north of a line from Midland to Childress has been remarkably dry the last two or three months. Right now, more than half the region is listed in exceptional drought status.

"The last time it was this dry, you have to go back to 1956. Even statewide, it has been the driest eight-month period on record."

May was particularly dry.

"Amarillo only received 0.08 of an inch of precipitation," said National Weather Service Senior Forecaster Michael Scotten. "The average is 2.5 inches. For the year, Amarillo has only gotten 0.68 of an inch, the driest start to a year on record."

While there is some level of drought everywhere in the Panhandle, the worst conditions cover Amarillo and areas to the west and southwest including Hereford, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"Amarillo has had no significant precipitation since last November," Scotten said.

The water authority started pumping water from Meredith Wednesday after letting the lake rest since Jan. 9, hoping to have enough water to address increasing seasonal demand during June, July and August. It is also running its well field in Roberts County at full speed.

"We're just barely keeping up," Satterwhite said. "If we have any little bobble, we'll be in trouble."

That would translate into trouble for the authority's 11 member cities, including Amarillo and Lubbock.

A U.S. Geological Survey chart shows the water level in Lake Meredith dropped about 1.25 feet in the last 45 days to 36.91 feet, yet another record low and about one-third of the record high level.

The Texas Water Development Board lists Meredith as essentially zero percent full and charts a freefall in the lake's level over the past 11 years.

Other regional lakes are faring only slightly better. The board lists Greenbelt Lake as 25 percent full, Mackenzie Reservoir at 12 percent and Palo Duro Reservoir at 13 percent.

And just to worsen matters, May's water demand in Amarillo, driven in large part by homes and businesses trying to nurse their grass to green, was "unprecedented," said Director of Utilities Emmett Autrey.

On top of drought-driven demand, Amarillo is struggling to cope with bad luck in its water supply system, mostly due to well equipment.

"We just had a rash of well breakdowns in May, apparently from high usage," Autrey said in reference to the city's Carson County Wellfield. "It's kind of like driving a car 110 mph; it's going to break down a lot quicker."

The high usage spurred the supply problem, but the city added about 6.75 million gallons in supply on Wednesday when water authorities started pumping from Meredith.

"We've had a lot of pressure complaints, but that should start getting better by virtue of the lake water," Autrey said.

The city is also getting many of the broken wells back in service, adding about 1 million gallons of water per day from each well that's back online. It is also trying to refill its 500-million-gallon reservoir that has been making up for the increased demand. The next addition to supply won't come until late in the heavy-demand season.

"We're not going to see the Potter County Wellfield come online until the end of the summer," Autrey said.