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The Texas Water Crisis
by Vicki Wolf, December 2011

Texas water authorities at every level are on alert. Last summer’s extremely hot, dry weather was a wake-up call. Now more than a dozen Texas towns are in danger of running out of water. Texas is in a water crisis. To make it official, the Texas Water Development Board December report says the state reservoirs are extremely low even after some autumn rain. The reservoirs are only 60 percent full, the lowest since 1978, the first year state water levels were recorded. Water levels also are down in aquifers.

Several factors have caused the state water supply to dwindle in the past year. On top of the drought, last summer brought record heat, which results in higher than normal evaporation. And then there is the human factor - when it’s hot and dry farmers pump more water for irrigation, residents use more for watering yards and keeping cool in the pool. Restaurants turn on the misting machines.

Dr. Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for Water Science and Conservation at the Texas Water Development Board says this drought started about a year ago. Even though parts of Texas have had some rain this fall, experts predict the drought could get worse before it gets better. “For many parts of the state, when we started in this drought reservoirs were full,” Mace recalls. “If we don’t get appreciable amounts of rainfall this winter, we’ll go into next year with reservoirs and aquifers a lot lower.”

A combination of cycles coupled with the effects of global warming are colliding to set Texas up for a drought that could last several years. In Austin at the “Effective Drought Strategies” workshop in December, Bob Rose, Lower Colorado River Valley Authority (LCRA) meteorologist told a group of water managers that recent weather patterns in Texas have been a by-product of one of the strongest La Ninas of the last century.

La Nina is a cycle of cool water in the Pacific jet stream. When these waters are cool, warm air for thunderstorms goes away from the United States and a stable high pressure system is the result. A high pressure system kept rain away and temperatures high last summer, and now La Nina is back. “Intense droughts are hard to break,” Rose says. “We hope it will end soon.” But all the modeling of weather patterns indicate that the drought is likely to continue well into 2012.

It’s not just La Nina. “Sea surface temperatures in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans run in 20 to 30 year cycles - some are good for Texas, some are bad for Texas,” says Mace. “Right now everything is in a bad cycle for Texas.”

Global warming has intensified the cycles, according to Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center. and speaker at the “Effective Drought Strategies” workshop. “The fingerprint of human activity is all over our atmosphere,” Hayhoe told Texas water managers. She explained that sophisticated computer modeling can simulate La Nina, El Nino and other planetary patterns. These models show that temperatures on the earth since the industrial age would be going down if it weren’t for increased use of fossil fuels. “We can measure properties in any lab and show that the use of fossil fuel causes atmosphere temperatures to go up. Use of fossil fuels correlate with global warming,” Hayhoe says.

“The natural greenhouse effect traps heat energy given off by the Earth and reflects it back to the Earth. “Just like too much food, we are artificially enhancing the greenhouse effect and have artificially increased temperatures.” With global warming, weather extremes become prevalent: dry areas get dryer, and wet areas get wetter.

Surface Water
The current drought has had a dramatic impact on availability of surface water. On the Drought Severity Index, the color for exceptional drought is brown. Most of Texas is in the “brown” range. For the first time in 100 years, the urgent need to curtail water use prompted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to mandate that water can no longer be provided to farmers for irrigation.

What about the aquifers?
Aquifers provide 80 percent of the public water supply across the state. Some aquifers are slow to recharge. Mace says, “The big question is how much pumping will communities do, and how long will the aquifers last?”

The role of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is to ensure that the state has enough water for the future. Four plans come into play, according to Mace:

The 2012 State Water Plan was approved in December. The plan lays out water supplies required for the state to have enough water through a drought of record. The plan consists of 16 regional plans integrated into one state plan, which is updated every five years. “We currently are not ready for a drought of record according to the state plan,” says Mace. “If we go into a drought of record, we will not have enough water.”

The Water Conservation Plan, developed by water providers, includes initiatives such as lawn watering guidelines, leak detection and repair, and water catchment.

Drought Contingency Plan is required for all water providers. This plan describes the residential and agricultural triggers for implementing water use reduction measures such as going from voluntary water use restriction to mandatory restrictions for watering lawns twice a week, once a week and not at all, depending on the severity of the water shortage.

There is no state oversight for enforcing adherence to the Drought Contingency Plan. “The state requires folks to plan, but implementation falls to local water providers,” says Mace.

The Drought Preparedness Plan describes how to deal with a community that runs out of water. The plan is developed by the Drought Preparedness Council that includes a representative from the Texas Department of Emergency Management.

When does the state get involved?
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) meets with the TWDB twice a week to work on drought related issues. The TCEQ is notified when a community is in danger of running out of water. “The state agency can jump in and help a community,” says Mace.”My group (TWDB) will provide technical assistance. Everybody’s motivated to make sure no one runs out of water.” Right now some communities are 45 days from running out of water. “The TCEQ is working hard, and talking to communities and helping them alleviate the situation before they run out of water.”

Desalination Efforts
Desalination is the process of removing salt from water to increase water supply. The first seawater plant in Texas is being built at South Padre Island and will produce one million gallons of water a day. Although it was the most expensive alternative, desalination of seawater was chosen because it was more reliable than other options.

Some aquifers contain brackish water, a combination of seawater and fresh water. El Paso, Brownsville and San Antonio are investing in desalination to take the salt out of the brackish water.

El Paso Staying Ahead of Water Shortage with Multiple Sources
The City of El Paso has initiated “conjunctive use management”: using multiple sources to benefit the whole system. “When times are good, they use surface water from the Rio Grande,” Mace says. Preservation of aquifers is a high priority because they have a low recharge rate. When needed the city uses fresh water and salty water from the aquifer, and the city has the option of using treated water. “They believe they can live through a drought of record or worse,” Mace says.

What You Can Do
Mace offers these suggestions regarding individual concerns about water supply:

  • Find out who provides your water
  • Understand where your water is coming from
  • Find out what drought contingency plans show for your area
  • Get answers to questions from your water provider

Consider installing a rainwater harvesting system at your home. Mace and his wife have installed an 800 gallon tank. He says when you collect water for your own use, your relationship to water becomes more intimate. “There is something about collecting rainwater that changes your DNA,” Mace says. “You start to pay attention to how much it rains and how much you use. I was surprised how quickly it goes.”

Related Links and Information:

Drought Preparedness Council, Texas Department of Public Safety
Texas Tech University Climate Science Center
TCEQ Drought Hotline - 800-447-2827
TCEQ Drought Information - www.tceq.texas.gov/response/drought
Lower Colorado River Authority (drought conditions) - www.LCRA.org



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