Louisiana’s drought could worsen this winter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.

NOAA researchers said in a Thursday teleconference that a La Niña weather condition that returned in August could strengthen over the next two months.

La Niña events — created by slightly colder Pacific Ocean temperatures at the equator — generally cause drier and warmer weather in the South, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the prediction center. This is the second consecutive winter that La Niña conditions will exist.

“It’s most likely that severe drought will continue through the winter,” he said of areas such as Texas and Oklahoma.

Louisiana enjoyed some relief from the drought thanks to rain brought by Tropical Storm Lee in early September, which brought almost half the state out of drought conditions.

The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor, however, shows dry conditions are slowly returning and, as of Thursday, only about 7 percent of the state is not in some form of drought or classified as abnormally dry.

Barry Keim, Louisiana state climatologist, said in the 45 days since Tropical Storm Lee, an average 1.8 inches of rain has fallen compared to the normal 6.4 inches.

“Which is why the drought is slowly creeping back into the area,” Keim said. “We’ve slipped right back into that arid pattern.”

So far this year, the state has received 33 inches of rain — 15 inches less than the normal of 48 inches, Keim said.

Mike Strain, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said smart water usage will be a necessity.

“We could see this pattern for some time,” Strain said. “It’s putting stress on the entire system.”

Increased salinity in water wells, reduced amount of pasture grass and higher costs to operate irrigation wells are all factors, he said.

It’s not that Louisiana will see water restrictions, but it’s important for businesses and residents to make the best use of the water available, Strain said. “There’s enough water if we use it properly.”

The LSU Agricultural Center reported Sept. 22 that preliminary estimates of drought impacts on agriculture this year are at $391 million.

That includes a number of issues, including reduced revenue because of lower crop yields, increased production costs and lost revenue from acreage that farmers decided not to plant because of the drought, said Kurt Guidry, extension economist .

The September report was preliminary and a follow-up report will be done in November or December after harvest is complete, he said.

In the preliminary report, 2.7 million acres in the state reported have reduced yields and 35,152 acres weren’t planted. In addition, 791,033 acres were reported as having increased irrigation costs.

In addition to agriculture, wildfires could also continue to be a problem.

So far this year, there have been 2,695 fires damaging 35,753 acres in Louisiana, Strain said, compared with 2,335 fires impacting 23,138 acres in all of last year.

David Brown, director of the Southern Region Climate Services, said the areas of the south hardest hit by this last year’s drought has been Texas.

“For Texas, it’s been the worst one-year drought on record from Oct. 1, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2011,” Brown said.