SAN ANTONIO (AP) — An unusually wet winter that brought badly needed relief to a state suffering through a historic drought is no guarantee that bone-dry conditions won't return to Texas later this year, the National Weather Service warned state officials Monday.
"We're in a positive phase of getting out of the drought," meteorologist Barry Goldsmith said. "But notice I'm mincing my words. We're not out of the woods just yet."
Soaking rains since December have saturated parts of Texas with as much as 12 inches more rain than normal for this time of year, injecting color and growth back into browned and brittle landscapes. There should be even more rainfall in April and May across state, Goldsmith said.
But after that, Goldsmith said, all bets are off. He said only a tropical storm or hurricane this summer can likely completely extinguish statewide drought conditions, particularly in West Texas, where much of the region remains in the two most severe stages of drought.
Goldsmith delivered the drought forecast to state emergency responders during the first day of the Texas Emergency Management Conference. Wildfires and the drought dominate the agenda after Texas suffered nearly $8 billion in agriculture losses and blazes charred nearly 4 million acres last year.
Gov. Rick Perry began the conference by reminding officials the state was still in the throes of the drought and more damage is likely on the horizon
"Look for another outbreak of wildfires this summer as we go through the rest of the year," Perry said.
Last year was the driest on record in Texas. Goldsmith began by showing the drought map for April 2011, when the state started plunging into an extended spell of dryness that culminated with 86 percent of Texas languishing in "exceptional drought" by September.
Blistering temperatures and the lack of rain depleted lakes and reservoirs, which left several small towns in Texas scrambling to find water. At one point, more than a month passed in Texas with less than an inch of rain in the entire state.
The drought started in fall 2010 with the arrival of the La Nina weather phenomenon that causes below-normal rainfall. Goldsmith said the state is moving out of the La Nina and appears headed to weather-neutral or El Nino phase, in which Texas winters tend to be cooler and wetter.
"If we go anywhere next winter, it will be a weak El Nino," Goldsmith said.