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Drought worsening in parts of Texas

Betsy Blaney, Associated Press

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) -- Not one drop of rain fell in parts of Texas last month, deepening the state's inability to overcome a two-year drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday shows portions of North, South and southwest Texas returning to the exceptional drought category, the driest possible. National Weather Service rainfall maps show that much of southwest Texas received no rain in February; some areas in deep South Texas saw no more than a tenth of an inch.

The recent snowstorm, in which Amarillo set a record of 19.1 inches, helped pull most of the Panhandle out of the worst drought category. And a few areas received near normal precipitation from December to February, thanks to rain that fell in mid-January.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said the chance of rain this month is scant, aside from some in West Texas and east of Interstate 35 in the next couple of days.

"The weekend thing is the first significant rain for March," he said. "The next one in line in the forecast is not until a week from next Tuesday, so we're going a long time between storm systems."

But there is reason for optimism, as average rainfall totals were slightly above normal during the first two months of the year: 3.84 inches instead of the normal 3.23.

January was Texas' 15th wettest first month of a year, receiving an average of 2.64 inches. That surpassed the January average of 1.55 inches. February was below average, according to preliminary numbers that show the state got 1.2 inches instead of the normal 1.68 inches. Official February precipitation numbers were expected to be released Friday.

The four wettest months in Texas are April, May, June and October.

National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy said it's too early to say whether Texas is in for another bad drought year. Texas' driest year ever was 2011, when a La Nina pattern kept rains away while triple-digit temperatures baked the land and windy conditions sucked whatever moisture remained in the soil.

Murphy said there is an increased chance of below normal rainfall this month west of a line from Victoria to Wichita Falls.

"That's how we've been now for the last 30 months," he said of differing rainfall trends that have one half of the state getting rain and the other getting little to none. "Unfortunately, the South Texas area and the West Texas area are probably not going to get any rain."

Also, Thursday's report showed that levels of the 109 lakes that supply the majority of the state's water were 66.5 percent full, the lowest for this time of year since 1990.

"This is the time of year when we should be on the upswing" on lake levels, Murphy said.

He noted the levels had diminished gradually since mid-January's good rains, a combination of slightly warmer-than-normal temperatures and February's below-normal rainfall. However, reservoirs across North and Central Texas remain at healthy levels despite the prolonged drought.

Of great concern, Murphy said, are Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where agriculture is struggling.

"That area is rising as a bullet as far as an area of concern," Murphy said of the counties, which have seen record 12- and 24-month periods of dryness. "It's starting to surpass West Texas as far as being the driest."

Earlier this week U.S. Sen. John Cornyn demanded an international commission intervene to ensure that Mexico diverts Rio Grande water to Texas, as it is obligated to do under a longstanding treaty. The persistent drought has depleted the Rio Grande, and arguments over when and how much water to release from the river have increased tensions.

Legislators, too, are working to address the state's water future during the current session.

In some ways, Nielsen-Gammon said, it's good the state continues to want for rain.

"It's a mixed bag," he said. "For drought to stay on the political radar, it has to continue."