Drought Still Haunts Texas’ Water Supply

Despite a wet winter, many reservoirs are perilously low.
by Published on
photo by Jen Reel
O.C. Fisher Reservoir near San Angelo

Don’t let the rain fool you. Texas is far from drought-free.

True, this relatively wet winter—at least in much of the state—has been a welcome surprise, a blessing if you’ve been praying for rain. (H/t Rick Perry.) It’s lifted parts of North and Northeast Texas out of drought and eased things considerably in other parts of the state.  Many reservoirs in the eastern third of the state have filled up or are filling up right now as the rain comes down. I can tell you that my plants, and I’m sure yours too, are loving life right now.

But, from a water supply perspective there are parts of the state, mostly west of I-35, that are still up Dry Shit Creek. Writes state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon:

Overall, drought conditions have improved since September. But only in the north-central and eastern parts of the state have large reservoirs seen water storage increase by more than 5% of capacity. Much of the rest of the state has not seen improvement in reservoir levels, and a few major reservoirs in the western half of the state remain dry.

There simply hasn’t been enough rain—and, more critically, not enough runoff—to recover from brutally dry and hot 2011. In the case of West Texas, there hasn’t been enough rain in years to bring up key reservoirs. And the outlook for 2012, given the lingering La Nina pattern, is not great.

Midland, Odessa and San Angelo, in fact, find themselves in precisely the same position they were in last year: two of their three drinking-water lakes are dry and the third, O.H. Ivie, is declining rapidly. At current usage levels, the cities could run out of Ivie water by January 2013. New watering restrictions will buy the cities another 90 to 120 days, enough time to build a pipeline to groundwater in Ward County.

Ivie has shrunk by nearly half since this time last year. It now sits at about 18 percent capacity.

 

 

 

ivie_II_-_feb_2012

Although 2011 was devastating to Ivie’s water levels, the current drought has only accelerated what amounts to a 15-year slide.

 

ivie_-_feb_2012

 

Even though Austin’s been getting good rainfall it hasn’t been falling in the right place to flow into the Highland Lakes, Austin’s sole water source. LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose told me today that the Colorado River watershed needs 15 inches to fill up Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan.

“Lake Travis is currently about 54 feet below full and Lake Buchanan is about 20 feet below full,” he wrote in an email. “That’s a lot of rain.”

Here’s how Lake Buchanan stood at the end of January.

buchanan_-_Jan_2012

And here’s Lake Travis (FYI: no graph can possibly substitute for the sad-looking state of this lake in real life):

travis_-_feb_2012

As you can see there’s only been slight improvement, though rains this weekend will help on the margins a bit more.

Meanwhile, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs put out a report this week on the devastating effects of a potential Texas “mega-drought” but failed to mention climate change. It’s too bad because otherwise the report, called “The Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond,” is handsome, lucid and the analysis is sound. Combs actually considers, based on mounting tree-ring data, the dire consequences of another multi-decadal drought scenario.

Say that Texas receives half of its “normal” average annual rainfall, 13 inches or so, for two decades. Our semi-tropical regions would become arid, while our semi-arid regions would become desert. This situation would create tremendous social changes.

Consequences:

■ Texas agriculture would change dramatically, and might end in some areas. Drip irrigation and other techniques pioneered in desert areas would become essential.

■ Remaining agriculture might become dependent on “water markets,” in which the rights to draw groundwater are bought and sold.

■ Food prices, particularly beef prices, would increase significantly.

■ Turf grass lawns and all outside watering might be banned.

■ Low-flow water appliances would become mandatory.

■ Wastewater would become quite valuable, and would be reclaimed for reuse in irrigation and perhaps treated to make it suitable for human consumption.

■ Desalination of brackish (salty) groundwater and seawater would become common, at first for industrial and agricultural uses and then for drinking water.

■ Utility rates could be expected to skyrocket due to the increased expense of water obtained through desalination or reuse, and the higher costs faced by energy plants that rely on water for cooling

We need to consider, and prepare for this scenario, since it’s quite possible that we might be in the first year or so of a “mega-drought.”

However, Combs was remiss not to even mention how anthropogenic climate change is impacting the Texas climate right now. Temperatures are indiputably rising and some climate models indicate a greater occurrence of drought conditions in the American Southwest as well as more infrequent rainfall events.

Omitting a consideration of climate change from the report was almost certainly deliberate and likely calculated to avoid “controversy.” How long can this last? In the long run, the curtain will have to come down on this Kabuki, if only from the sheer weight of evidence. But then in the long run, as Keynes said, we’ll all be dead. 

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.