Texas Is Nearly Out of This Drought – But We’re Not in the Clear

An abridged version of the below ran as an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman today.

Flooding near Whole Foods in May 2015. Source: Instagram/Caleb Eike Smith

Flooding near Whole Foods in May 2015. Source: Instagram/Caleb Eike Smith

Unfortunately, a good rain washes away more than the drought; it washes away much of man’s interest in providing for the next one, and it washes the supports from under those who know that another dry cycle is coming and who urge their fellows to make ready for it.

— “More Water for Texas” by Walter Prescott Webb (1954)

As a native Austinite, I remember the historic Memorial Day Flood of 1981. I was a little kid and the storm was so intense I asked my Mom if I could sleep in her bed. I remember seeing pictures of grand pianos from Strait Music store and cars from the dealerships floating down Lamar Boulevard, and the original Whole Foods flooding. Austin has changed a lot in the intervening decades, and although many of the store fronts are different, the pictures taken of Lamar this Memorial Day were eerily similar.

In Texas we are used to cycles of drought and flood; we know extreme weather just as we know extreme personalities and politics. But the natural dynamics are changing in Texas, and we can no longer rely on the saving grace of a “rain bomb” to get us out of the next drought. Make no mistake, the next drought is just around the corner. The best way to help Texas conserve water now is to urgently pursue clean energy and better planning between the energy and water sectors.

Texas droughts and floods, then and now

Although the flood in 1981 didn’t end an historic drought, this year’s floods essentially brought an end to a multi-year drought (a few areas are still considered in mild drought). The last drought Texas saw of this magnitude was in the 1950s. My great-grandfather had to sell his boat because there was no water in Lake Travis, much like my Dad had to sell his retirement boat this time around. And, in both 1957 and 2015, then came the rain. Yet the circumstances are not the same.

In 1957, when the drought of record ended, Texas had a population of 9 million. Currently, Texas houses nearly 27 million people. And the State Demographer has predicted the population of the state could double by 2050, with much of that growth concentrated in urban areas. Austin, which is still partially in drought, is ranked by many as the fastest-growing city in the country, and some predictions put growth at over 80 percent by 2030. Keep those numbers in mind for a moment.

Now let’s think about the changing climate. There is not yet enough data to say for sure whether this current drought-flood cycle was caused by climate change, however, droughts of the future must now be considered alongside the dire predictions of future climate models. The drought cycles, in particular, appear to be more intense under climate change. But don’t take my word for it – Texas’ State Climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon said:

We certainly know climate change is going to make temperatures warmer, make evaporation more intense and increase water demand for plants and agriculture, so it will make that aspect of drought worse. […] Since models are generally projecting a rainfall decrease, model-based analyses show some pretty nasty increases in drought intensity in [Texas].”

So, whether or not climate change is at the root of the extreme weather isn’t necessarily the point. Katharine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Center, put it well:

Science does not say that climate change is CAUSING the extreme rain and drought we’re seeing across the U.S. today, and in recent years. Just like steroids make a baseball player stronger, climate change EXACERBATES many of our weather extremes, making many of them, on average, worse than they would have been naturally.”

Congress Avenue after historic floods in 1935. Source: PICA 04147, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Congress Avenue after historic floods in 1935. Source: PICA 04147, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Looking ahead for Texas water

The bottom line is: Texas got a reprieve this time, but that doesn’t let the state off the hook from being mindful about future water availability in the face of increasing demand. Population growth and higher temperatures increase demand for both water and water-intensive electricity.

Thoughtful planning is key, and considering where we can be more efficient in our use is essential. Here are just a few ways Texas can start harnessing existing technology and resources to protect our state’s water supply:

  • Transition away from highly-water intensive energy resources such as coal and toward low-water use resources like solar PV and wind and no-water solutions like energy efficiency. Texas has the potential to save more than 22 million gallons of water per year in the power sector alone by moving away from coal, a trend that is already occurring in the state and across the country.
  • Use clean energy for energy- and water-intensive water solutions, such as desalination and moving and treating water during times when wind and solar are producing the most energy. Following the Legislative Session in Texas, we are one step closer to using renewable energy for desalinating brackish groundwater.
  • Increase coordination between planning for the energy and water sectors. Despite each sector’s dependence on the other, coordinated planning is minimal. Better communication and integration during the decision making process would help identify efficiencies and could reduce costs while increasing reliability for both sectors.
  • Give customers better access to their usage through smart water meters. Pecan Street, Inc., the innovative smart electric grid demonstration project in Austin, includes a water component that will test different technologies in communities in Texas and other Western states. The technologies will help customers pinpoint where they can save the most water, as well as help utilities improve tracking where their water is overused and design incentives to improve conservation.

We have avoided the worst outcomes from drought this time around, but the stability of our future water supply is still threatened. And as Nielsen-Gammon said, “The more water you save, the more water is going to last.” We Texans have never been ones for half-measures, so why don’t we tackle our water issues with the same extreme nature we’re known for in politics and personality?

You can read the op-ed in Austin American-Statesman here.

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