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Wet spring couldn’t douse drought

May 2023 rainfalls vs. average in Central Texas

A graphic from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the difference in rainfall from an average May in Burnet and Llano counties versus May 2023. While the counties received above-average rainfall, it was nowhere near enough to end the critical drought stage in which Burnet County has been since June 2022. NOAA image

Burnet County remains in the throes of an extreme drought, according to the Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District. A wet spring brought some reprieve to the county’s landscape, but a lot more rainfall is needed to escape ongoing dry conditions.

“The past 90 days, which is typically our wettest time of the year, we received average or a little more than average rainfall,” district General Manager Mitchell Sodek told “The bottom line is that we cannot get out of an extreme drought with average rainfall.”

As the district’s manager, Sodek regulates and monitors Burnet County’s groundwater. He advised the district’s Board of Directors to maintain the county’s Stage 4-Critical Drought classification during its regular meeting on June 16. 

Burnet County has been in a Stage 4-Critical Drought, the most severe rating, since June 13, 2022. The district imposed its first-ever mandatory groundwater-use restrictions in December 2022. 

According to Sodek, most of the county’s monitoring wells showed no significant increases from spring rains. 

“One flood would do a lot of good for the groundwater, but it is a slower process,” he explained. “You need continuous wet weather.”

Aquifers fill with water more slowly than lakes and rivers, he continued, citing evaporation, human capture, and vegetation as reasons. Water can also soak into surface-level soil before it ever reaches the aquifer. Sustained wet weather is necessary to adequately saturate the ground and turn into runoff that refills aquifers.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently announced that an El Niño climate pattern had developed as of June 8. This typically means wetter weather for Central Texas, but the full effects of El Niño are usually not felt until the fall and winter, meaning the summer is expected to remain dry.

Sodek referenced a tool that the NOAA uses to predict the amount of rainfall needed to end a drought in specific U.S. regions. Burnet and Llano counties are within Texas’ Climate Division 6, which would require an estimated 13.5 inches of rainfall across a one-month period to alleviate the current drought. This timeframe can be expanded across an entire year, showing the region needs at least 29 inches of rainfall every year to stay out of drought conditions.

Another NOAA tool shows the amount of precipitation the region has received over time. May 2023 saw about 4-6 inches of rain in the Marble Falls area and 6-8 inches in the Llano area. These regions typically receive less than 4 inches of rain in May. While 2023 had an above-average May, it was nowhere near enough to meet the 13.5 inches necessary to end the drought.

“It is tough to tell people to cut back on (groundwater use),” Sodek said. “The rainfall we did have helped, but it’s the same message that we’ve been having. We’re asking people to conserve where they can.”

Currently, the groundwater district has imposed mandatory drought restrictions of 15 percent on maximum usage for permitted wells in Burnet County. Smaller, residential wells with pump rates less than 17.36 gallons per second are not affected by the mandatory restrictions.

The district is still recommending voluntary 30 percent reductions for all groundwater users.