The month of August brought some much-needed rain to the Houston area after June and July were both exceptionally warm and exceptionally dry.

However, portions of Harris County remained in severe drought as of Aug. 22, according to the Texas Water Development Board, and experts said the effects of the dryness statewide are still being felt, including effects on agriculture, water supply and public health, among other areas.

“The seasonal outlook calls for the enhanced probability of above normal temperatures and below normal rainfall for at least now through the end of the year,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist and professor with Texas A&M University. “That could easily change with a well-aimed tropical cyclone, but that’s a dangerous way of ending a drought.”

These are just a few of the consequences of the ongoing drought in Houston and across the state. Despite a sprinkle of relief from rainfall in early August, the extreme conditions continue to trouble the area, causing issues everywhere from agriculture and wildfire risks to public health and air quality concerns, experts said.

The 2022 summer has been one of broken records in Houston. June averaged a daily high temperature of 86.7 degrees, setting a new record since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began tracking temperatures in 1889.

A new record was also set for July with an average high of 88 degrees. Temperatures and rainfall data are measured by the NOAA at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

With the drought expected to linger, the city of Houston is asking residents to voluntarily conserve water. Under a contingency plan officials monitor surface water levels to determine when voluntary or mandatory restrictions should be put into place.

Breaking records

The rainfall total in June made it the third driest June on record at 0.13 inches in the Houston region, according to the NOAA. Typically, 6 inches of rain falls in June. July’s rainfall total of 1.35 inches was about 2.5 inches less than the typical amount, according to the NOAA.

August saw more rainfall than it typically does, though temperatures were still hotter than usual. As of press time Aug. 26, about 6.34 inches of rain had fallen in August, and high temperatures were clocking in at 95.1 degrees on average. Over the past 30 years, each August has yielded 4.84 total inches of rainfall over the course of the month on average and sees average high temperatures of 94.5 degrees.

In an August interview, Paul Shinneman, farmer education manager with the Houston-based nonprofit Plant It Forward, said the extreme heat and dryness have caused challenges during summer months, particularly over the past two years. Plant it Forward helps refugees run urban farms to earn a living, and Shinneman said recent conditions have made it increasingly difficult to work during the day while also raising water bills.

“It’s been a while since I’ve remembered this many triple-digit weather days,” he said. “There used to be a little more time before ‘summer’ started.”

The Houston area historically gets more rain than other parts of the state, which has somewhat alleviated the severity of the ongoing drought, Nielsen-Gammon said. September and October tend to be wetter months, which could bring more relief, though he said the odds favor dry conditions.

This year’s drought cannot be directly tied to climate change, Nielsen-Gammon said. However, it is likely the explanation behind the gradual increase in average temperatures over time, he said. Temperatures in Texas this year have been up roughly 2 degrees in all seasons when compared to the 20-year average, he said.

“Climate change may be making the difference between 101 and 103 [degrees] on a particular day,” he said.

Heating up

Shinneman said Plant it Forward works with eight farmers across its four farm plots, including ones in the Westbury and Braeswood areas. In June and July, the extreme heat led officials to limit how much time farmers were spending outdoors during midday, he said.

“It’s nearly impossible to work after 11 a.m.,” he said.

The scheduling implemented at Plant It Forward is exactly what bosses and supervisors should be doing for anyone who works outside during the summer, said Dr. David Persse, Houston’s chief medical officer. Although many people hospitalized for heat illness are elderly, a good deal of them are outdoor laborers working on roofs or roads, he said.

“If you’re the boss, ... early in the summer, you need to adjust your work schedule,” Persse said. “If you’re a jogger, you need to adjust your jogging schedule.”

Heat illnesses tend to show up in three different ways, Persse said: heat cramps, which often present as pain in one muscle; heat exhaustion, which is a fatigue that affects the entire body; and heat stroke, a life-threatening illness in which the body’s ability to cool itself is overwhelmed and the brain shuts down.

On average, around 70 Texans died of heat-related illness per year between 1999 and 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2018 and 2021, a total of 378 Texans died from heat-related illnesses, according to preliminary data.

On top of the danger droughts pose to people, they also have detrimental effects on agriculture, increase water use, enhance the chemistry that leads to air pollution and increase the risk of wildfires, Nielsen-Gammon said.

The NOAA gauges how severe a drought is according to a system that ranks droughts along five different levels. As of press time Aug. 26, parts of western Harris County were ranked D3, or “extreme,” alongside 35.4% of the state. The eastern part of the country was ranked D2, or “severe,” with 23.2% of the state.

Under D3, soil has large cracks, and moisture is very low, resulting in decreased crop yield for crops that need irrigation, such as leafy vegetables, bulb vegetables, roots and tubers.

Water resources

The drought and heat take another financial toll when it comes to the price of water, Shinneman said. The farms are all connected to city of Houston water, and hotter temperatures combined with the lack of rain mean higher water bills, he said.

“Because it is so hot, the crops are susceptible to evaporation,” he said. “It’s tougher to get a deeper watering.”

The city of Houston and smaller cities such as Bellaire and West University Place follow protocols intended to help preserve water during droughts. Drought contingency plans adopted in each city serve as road maps for how to implement conservation measures based on how severe the drought is.

As of Aug. 26, Houston remained in the first stage of its plan, which calls for voluntary restrictions in water use on behalf of citizens. The city is encouraging people to limit outdoor watering to twice a week between 7 p.m.-5 a.m.

Other Houston-area cities have made their restrictions mandatory. The city of Katy entered Stage 3 of its plan Aug. 8, prohibiting the hosing of paved areas, buildings, windows and any hard-surfaced areas; the operation of ornamental fountains; and the washing or rinsing of vehicles by hose. In an Aug. 22 announcement, officials said they were still in Stage 3 and were monitoring wells and water systems as they recovered.

Historically, cities like West University Place have followed the city of Houston, updating their drought contingency plans as Houston does. As of late August, West University Place was at Stage 2 of its own contingency plan, which is similar to Stage 1 in Houston and calls for voluntary limitations.

To get to Stage 2, the Houston’s combined total storage of surface water would have to fall lower than a 24-month supply. At that point, mandatory restrictions would take effect.