The last time it rained in Lafayette was Tuesday, Aug. 1, according to weather data collected at the Lafayette Regional Airport. Gauges measured .19 inches of precipitation — practically a deluge compared to the .09 inches that fell on July 23. It’s been a summer of drought marked by excessive heat.
It’s the eighth driest summer recorded in Lafayette Parish, based on data going back to 1895 and compiled by the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. According to the National Weather Service, Lafayette and the rest of southwestern Louisiana are currently in an “extreme drought,” defined by “major crop/pasture losses, extreme fire danger, and widespread water shortages or restrictions.”
On Aug. 14, these conditions led to an unusual move — Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a State of Emergency based on extreme heat and minimal rainfall.
“This is no doubt weird,” says Brandon Waltman, an Opelousas-based assistant state soil scientist with the National Resource Conservation Service. “It’s been pretty dadgum bad out there. The soil is like concrete.”
As area residents know, a typical Louisiana summer is marked by heat, humidity and rainfall. The 100-year mean precipitation in June and July is 11.59 inches for Lafayette Parish, compared with the 6.06 inches received thus far this summer. To combat low water pressure and protect end-of-line service, LUS has asked area residents to avoid “high-consumption, non-domestic” water uses like lawn watering, car washing and filling up pools.
Kelia Fontenot-Bingham, Acadiana Planning Commission Region 5 watershed coordinator, says these conditions have caught people by surprise.
“I’ve been here my whole life, and it’s been hot, and we’ve had droughts — but combining them is nuts. I’m not sure we’ve ever had a governor declare a state of emergency for drought,” she says.
Water — usually in excess — is an ever-present policy and planning concern in Louisiana. In heavy rain events or unusually dry conditions, it’s increasingly clear land use patterns contribute to flood risk in the face of changing, difficult-to-predict weather patterns — and land use is closely linked to soil health.
Waltman puts it like this: Areas with more impervious surfaces and highly compacted soils will create damaging run-off and flood risk during heavy rains, and retain less moisture in periods of drought.
“Soil is a living ecosystem under our feet,” he says. “Just driving around, you see a lot of areas that don’t have healthy soil. The ground is crispy, plants are struggling.”
Healthy, non-compacted soil creates space for water to soak into the ground before it swells rivers and reaches homes. The deeper it soaks, the more water is stored in the event of drought.
In a typical year, Waltman notes, South Louisiana is fortunate to have so much rain. One path forward for creating a productive relationship with water is to plan land uses that capture this resource and store it in the ground.
However, until precipitation levels return to normal, experts will continue to advise people to avoid watering their lawns.
“Once we get the rain, we just need a little bit of recharge,” says Waltman. “The ground will suck it right up.”