The Texas Drought: How Bad Could it Get?
Researchers are talking openly about the possibility that the current drought afflicting Texas could become the new drought of record. That means it would be worse than the historic drought of the 1950s. Worse than anything else, for that matter, in recent history. Fear of a new record drought has even prompted some unique displays of creativity.
In mid-August, as the City of Austin closed in on breaking its triple digit heat record, a unique bit of guerrilla art popped up on a traffic island just east of I-35. A cinder block planter containing two desiccated cacti, and bearing the words: “Coming Soon, A Vast Desert!”
Alarming, perhaps, but the notion that swaths of once green land could quickly turn into desert is not science fiction.
“I’d love to know whether a caveman living 7,000 years ago in North Africa had written the same graffiti,” chuckled John Neilson-Gammon when he was told about the display. “Because that person would have been right!”
Neilson-Gammon is the Texas State Climatologist. Lately he’s been talking about just how bad things could get. He’s not saying that this will become the worst drought in the last three or four hundred years. It’s just, as he says, droughts of record are made to be broken.
“If it’s ever going to happen, this is the sort of situation in which it would happen,” he told KUT.
That demands new approaches towards water planning and management.
“If we run into a drought of record today, we don’t have enough water to meet our demands,” said Carolyn Brittin, a water resources planner who helps craft those plans at the Texas Water Development Board.
She says conservation and water re-use has grown since Texas started regional water planning in the late 1990s, and conservation is something the Board is encouraging as it moves forward with its 2012 water plan.
“Fifteen of our 16 regions in the state have significant water conservation recommendations,” said Brittin.
In some places, it’s catching on. Just ask Daryl Slusher with the City of Austin’s Water Utility.
“We’re a leader in conservation in this state in this region and really in the country,” Slusher told KUT. “Very few communities really have the kind of mandatory two day a week water restrictions that we do, all the time.”
But, if we get into a worst-case scenario there’s a problem. In the words of David Eaton “there are certain shortages that you can’t conserve your way out of.”
Eaton is a professor of Natural Resource Policy at UT Austin.
“If you don’t have enough water, than you can’t conserve enough to sustain yourself,” he told KUT. “Let’s consider a place like Israel.”
In Israel and surrounding countries, shortages have forced people to embrace water re-use and desalination to a level unheard of in Texas. Eaton says that will happen here when the costs of initiating such projects are cheaper than the cost of doing nothing. So are we there yet?
“We may be at such a point,” said Eaton. “The amount of agricultural production that has been damaged by the drought, may be a strong indication that we may already be at such a point.”
The Water Development Board’s Carolyn Brittin says re-use and water supply projects are normally initiated by local water utilities authorities. Those aren’t the kinds of things that happen overnight. The City of Austin plans to reclaim about 6 percent of its water by 2032. But Daryl Slusher says if the drought worsens those projects could come sooner.
“Yes it’s possible that we could accelerate those programs,” said Slusher. “Now reclaim(ed water), it takes a few years to build all those pipes and put them in the ground.”
A few years might seem like a long time, but consider this. State Climatologist John Neilson-Gammon says we could continue to see drier weather for the next five to fifteen years. If we encounter his worst case scenario, all options could be on the table sooner rather than later.