After a week of dry weather that has had fire crews on alert for wildfires, Austin’s forecast for Monday calls for as much as an inch of rain in the city. Any rainfall will be appreciated as drought conditions expand throughout the state.
The weather pattern known as La Niña — which occurs when tropical waters in the eastern Pacific become cooler than normal — continues to keep a firm grip on spring weather. The phenomenon typically leads to warmer, drier conditions in Central Texas.
According to the latest update from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, La Niña has a 53% chance of lingering into the summer (June to August) and a 40% to 50% chance of diminishing to a neutral status.
“The latest 3-month outlooks … for April-June show a high likelihood of warmer than normal temperatures on average, and odds are also tilted towards drier than normal conditions. This is bad news for our drought,” the weather service’s office that serves the Austin-San Antonio area tweeted Saturday.
This week, about 96.3% of the state — including the Austin-area counties of Travis, Hays, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell — is experiencing some level of drought, according to U.S. Drought Monitor data.
In Central Texas, only a sliver of rural land from the Travis-Bastrop county line northeast to Milam County remains drought-free.
A swath of the Hill Country west of Austin is in extreme drought, the second-highest level on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s scale. The affected area includes most of Burnet and Blanco counties and the eastern portions of Llano and Gillespie counties. Extreme drought can be typified by cracked soil, an increased risk of wildfires and low reservoir levels.
As many as 132 of the state’s 254 counties are under an outdoor burn ban, including Travis, Hays and Caldwell counties.
The city of Austin has banned the building of fires and grilling in all of its parks, greenbelts and preserves until further notice. Park rangers will enforce the burning restriction, and violations could lead to a fine between $300 and $500.
The two largest reservoirs in Central Texas, lakes Buchanan and Travis on the Colorado River, remain below full capacity, according to data Friday from the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the lakes for hydroelectricity and flood control.
Lake Buchanan in Burnet County was considered 88% full, while Lake Travis — a water source and aquatic playground for Austin-area residents — was only 69% full.
The elevation for Lake Travis at Mansfield Dam, which creates the lake, was about 660 feet above mean sea level, or about 9 feet lower than the historical average for March.
Regional watersheds like the Edwards Aquifer also have suffered from a recent lack of moisture. The aquifer — an underground layer of porous, water-bearing rock sitting beneath Central Texas — typically gets recharged after heavy rainfall as runoff swells creeks and streams sitting above the rock.
“With most of the February rains falling northeast of the recharge zone, the aquifer level at the J-17 index well has dropped 5 feet (to 659 feet) over the past month,” the weather service’s latest drought report said March 6. “The well is a couple feet lower than this time last year and is now almost 10 feet below historical average values.
Whatever moisture Austin banked in February has been largely erased by a particularly dry March. As of Saturday, the total rainfall recorded for March at Camp Mabry, site of Austin’s main weather station, was 0.1 inch or about 1.6 inches less than normal for this point in the month.
Forecast calls for rain starting Sunday night
But relief for the parched soils of Central Texas is on the way, in the form of a rainy warm front sweeping into the region from the southwest.
“This will bring chances for showers and thunderstorms after midnight early Monday,” the weather service said in a bulletin Saturday. “The southerly flow bringing the warm front will bring a warm, moist airmass to the region.”
Forecasters expect strong to severe storms to develop Monday along and east of the Interstate 35 corridor, including the Austin metro area.
“The best timing for severe storms looks to be during the afternoon and evening,” the weather service said. As the warm front moves north, the air could stabilize and reduce the chances for severe weather, forecasters said.
The outlook for Austin on Sunday includes sunny skies and a high temperature of 80 degrees. But after midnight Sunday, in the wee hours of Monday, rain chances rise to 50% amid southeast winds of 10 to 15 mph with 25 mph gusts.
Rain is all but certain Monday in Austin, starting during the morning commute and lasting into the afternoon. Temperatures could reach 81 degrees, but the gusty southeast winds will persist, forecasters said. Storms will likely continue Monday night and into early Tuesday.
Once the rain is over on Tuesday, northwest winds will replace the southerly air flow, the weather service said. Austin should enjoy the return of sunshine, and temperatures will be about 10 degrees cooler, topping out at 73 degrees.