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There’s still a drought out there

Despite the rain, the state of Texas is still mostly in drought conditions, and the threat will remain for the next several years.

Most of Central and East Texas beat long odds with heavy rains this winter, but experts warned state lawmakers Thursday that the drought is far from over.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said that the second year of a La Niña cycle — cooler temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that influence global weather patterns — produces a dry winter for Texas “4 times out of 5.”

But Nielsen-Gammon said it’s a coin toss whether the recent winning streak will continue. “The (short-term) outlook is not particularly dire or good,” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a summary of drought conditions that was updated Thursday, showed how quickly conditions can change. As recently as 
Oct. 4, 88 percent of the state was categorized as being in “exceptional” drought, the most severe level. On Thursday’s map, about 18 percent of the state remained in that category.

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Nielsen-Gammon said that most of the winter rains fell on the most populated areas of the state.

“The people of Texas are going to tend to forget a drought is still going on in many parts of Texas,” he said.

In parts of the Panhandle and far West Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the drought has gotten worse this winter.

Despite the rains and the short-term forecast, Nielsen-Gammon said he still believes Texas remains in a long-term drought cycle.

“We are more likely to get droughts over the next decade than the one after that,” he said.

Lake levels remain down, and while conservation remains the best strategy for both the short and long term, such planning is often inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, urged lawmakers to maximize the state’s existing water supplies.

He testified that drought contingency plans are drafted locally and filed with the state without the state reviewing “how much water is actually being saved.”

He said that causes inconsistencies in how cities — including neighboring communities drawing from the same water supplies — handle restrictions on water use.

“It’s (a problem) everywhere,” Ritter said. “It’s definitely an issue we will be dealing with.”

For example, Kramer said, voluntary restrictions on water use were never used in Corpus Christi because the restrictions aren’t triggered until the city’s reservoir reaches 50 percent of capacity. Kramer suggested that is too low and that weather conditions — not just reservoir levels — should be part of the equation.

“You may well be into a drought before the reservoir reaches the trigger,” he said.

Likewise, Kramer said Houston was restricting its residents to twice-a-week watering of their lawns while selling water to neighboring cities that didn’t have those limits.

He said water wholesalers, whether public suppliers like Houston or private companies, don’t have a financial incentive to restrict water sales.

I don’t see how we can hope to effectively deal with this without some state level regulations. Especially now that some parts of the state are feeling flush, the incentives are all out of whack. It may go against the grain for some folks – Rep. Ritter was clearly not thrilled with the idea – but I don’t see how you can prevent shortsighted usage when there’s a buck to be made without them.

The Trib also covered this hearing, and added another dimension to it.

“This is the biggest threat we have to our economy right now,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking about water supplies. In 2011, he added, “the bell went off, and either we’re going to do something or we’re not.”

How big a threat to the economy is this? This big.

Texas’ worst drought in history just got worse, with new estimates putting the agricultural toll at $7.6 billion for 2011 – $2.4 billion above the original loss estimate, which already was a record.

The recently updated estimate from Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists was $3.5 billion more than the losses for the previous record drought in 2006.

“When you are one of the biggest agricultural-producing states in the nation, a monumental drought causes enormous losses,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

If we’re not adequately prepared for when this happens again, we’re going to be that much worse off.

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