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Climatologists say drought-stricken Wichita Falls region could see dry weather for decade

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WICHITA FALLS, Texas — A North Texas city experiencing its worst drought on record may face a decade or longer of persistent hot, dry weather, state and federal climatologists warned at a public forum Tuesday.

Wichita Falls, about 110 miles northwest of Fort Worth, will likely need to undertake costly programs to retrieve or treat water as its reservoirs fall to dangerous lows, the experts said.

The forum, among a half dozen gatherings organized by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration across the U.S. Southern Plains, focused on preservation efforts, climate forecasts and financial assistance available to those whose businesses have suffered from a lack of water.

Drinking water supplies for about 150,000 users around Wichita Falls have fallen precipitously from nearly 90 percent capacity before the drought began in late 2010 to less than a quarter of capacity, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

The city has banned irrigation, attempted to increase rainfall with cloud seeding and is now awaiting approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates public water sources, for a toilet-to-tap reuse program.

Still, the city's reservoirs are on a trajectory to run dry by August 2016.

TCEQ officials have not made a final decision on the city's proposal.

PHOTO: Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon does a presentation at the Drought Outlook and Assessment Forum Tuesday morning, June 24, 2014,  at the Ray Clymer Exhibit Hall in Wichita Falls, Texas. The forum brought together meteorologists, climatologists and researchers to give their take on the drought and water situation in North Texas.  (AP Photo/Wichita Falls Times Record News, Torin Halsey)
Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon does a presentation at the Drought Outlook and Assessment Forum Tuesday morning, June 24, 2014, at the Ray Clymer Exhibit Hall in Wichita Falls, Texas. The forum brought together meteorologists, climatologists and researchers to give their take on the drought and water situation in North Texas. (AP Photo/Wichita Falls Times Record News, Torin Halsey)

The current drought is the second-worst in Texas after the historic 1950s Dust Bowl, according to the state's climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon.

"This truly is a historic drought," the intensity of which is seen only every 200 to 400 years in stable climate conditions, Nielsen-Gammon said.

NOAA has participated in several drought forums in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Organizers said the Wichita Falls meeting, which attracted about 200 public water resource managers, farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders, was the most well-attended to date.

Dental hygienist Sharon Hyde uses buckets to collect rainwater, captures shower water and uses it to flush toilets and recycles dishwater to water rose bushes.

"To see your plants, huge 50-year-old trees die, is just heartbreaking," Hyde said.

Record heat is expected to last through the summer months, but the area may see much-needed precipitation from an El Nino system, a band of warm ocean water temperatures off the Equatorial Pacific that generally bring wetter winters to Texas, said Klaus Wolter of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory.

The dire situation is fallout from Texas' driest year ever in 2011. Since then, rainfall has been more plentiful in the eastern half of the state. When it fell in the western half of the state, the precipitation didn't fall into lakes' watersheds.

Conservation by Wichita Falls residents has water usage down by more than half in the past year, said Darron Leiker, the city manager. But that can only go so far.

"In the long term, we're going to have to secure another water source," Leiker said. "The where is not close and the where is expensive, but we might have to bite the bullet and do it anyway."

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