A neutral spring forecast could be less than exciting this year

The new decade ushered in mild weather throughout most of the Brazos River basin, which could be the trend for the coming spring months. According to the state climatologist, the remainder of the winter will be “a bit of a roll of the dice with something close to normal being the exception” rather than the rule.

Does that mean warmer than usual weather for Texas?

“There’s nothing much happening in the tropical Pacific to cause unusual weather for Texas, and none of the forecast models have anything dramatic happening,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s climatologist and professor at Texas A & M University.

According to Nielsen-Gammon, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the recurrent weather patterns in the central and eastern tropical Pacific that often influence whether Texas will enjoy heavy rainfall or prolonged drought conditions, are currently neutral, meaning Texas’ weather could tip in either direction at this point.

“That means that soil moisture conditions should continue to improve, and streamflow should stay around normal level” during the coming spring months, Nielsen-Gammon said. He added that while floods or severe drought cannot be completely ruled out, they seem unlikely at this point. Nielsen-Gammon added, though, that much of the Brazos River basin is dry, and while current drought conditions are not severe, problems could emerge in late spring and early summer. He noted that “it doesn't take long for dry soil to heat increasing drought conditions.”

Forecasts from other services, such as the NOAA Weather Service and the Farmers’ Almanac, vary. According to this year’s 2020 Farmers’ Almanac predictions, the winter months could be filled with so many ups and downs on the thermometer that “it may remind you of a ‘Polar Coaster.’”

January is usually the coldest month of the year for the Brazos River basin. Average lows for the northern portions of the basin many times hover near 26 degrees Fahrenheit in the Lubbock area and can be as high as the average 60 degrees in the lower basin city of Sugar Land; however, some cities within the basin saw temps in the 70s during the first days of January.

According to the NOAA weather service, portions of the Brazos River basin are expected to enjoy continued above-average winter temperatures but below-average precipitation.

“Without either El Nino or La Nina conditions, short-term climate patterns like the Arctic Oscillation will drive winter weather and could result in large swings in temperature and precipitation,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

One year ago, 2019 rolled in with no drought conditions within the Brazos River basin, the Brazos River Authority water supply system measured 100 percent full, and all 8 System federal reservoirs held water in their flood pools. Skip forward a year, and 2020 arrived with more than 50 percent of the basin under some form of drought conditions. Fortunately though, the BRAs System is relatively full at 92 percent.

“January’s drought monitor shows fairly widespread drought conditions from just below Lake Granbury downstream through the central portion of the Brazos River basin,” said Aaron Abel, BRA Water Services manager. “The drought impacts we are seeing have been due to the lower than normal amount of rain we’ve received in the basin since last July. However, those impacts haven’t had a substantial effect on water supply storage yet,” Abel added. “If we receive a normal amount of rain this spring, our water supply system will be in great shape going into the summer months. If we don’t have a normal spring, we could see an effect on our water supply system with lower flows into the reservoirs resulting in a decline in lake levels.”

According to Nielsen-Gammon, neutral El Niño conditions are expected to continue into the summer. He added that the long-range forecasts are looking “fairly mundane” as far as rain is concerned. He did, however, note that temperatures may not remain as mild. “We're dealing with an ongoing warming trend, so there's a bit of a tilt in the odds toward above-normal temperatures for the rest of the year.”