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aquifers

Dealing with climate change whether you believe in it or not

Writer Taylor Hill visits West Texas to talk about drought, wind energy, and the topic that dare not speak its name, also known as climate change.

Actions, though, do speak louder than words. AzTx Cattle and other ranching and farming operations across West Texas are changing a century-old way of life to adapt to the new reality of climate change, even if, in their unwillingness to talk about global warming, they see their actions as a pragmatic response to a new business reality. So a state that once spawned oil billionaires like T. Boone Pickens now mints wind barons like, yes, T. Boone Pickens, and rock-ribbed conservative cities are ditching dirty coal for wind and solar energy. Texas may be home to some of the nation’s most vociferous climate skeptics—hello, Ted Cruz—but Texans are already fighting climate change, even if they won’t admit it. Survival, it turns out, trumps denial.

“If people are making smart choices for different reasons, that’s OK,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, and an evangelical Christian. “What matters is not why we do it; what matters is what we’re doing.”

[…]

AzTx Cattle once operated feedlots scattered across the parched landscapes of Arizona and Texas. Bob Josserand cites the continued consolidation of the cattle feeding industry as the reason the company has closed all of its feedlots except for one in Hereford. Today, John Josserand focuses mainly on the company’s open-range cattle ranches in East Texas and New Mexico.

But even at the Hereford feedlot, things have changed.

On a walk around the 50,000-cattle lot, John reluctantly leads the way to the feedlot’s latest herd of Holstein cows—a smaller breed that requires less food and therefore less water. For a man who associates high-quality cattle with the all-black coat, perky ears, and stocky build of Angus, the Holstein, with its splotchy black-and-white hide and floppy ears, is not his favorite cow. It doesn’t produce the prized steaks associated with Black Angus or other iconic Texas cattle. If Holsteins are not used as dairy cows, they’re typically sold as low-quality ground beef—they’re kind of the catfish of the cow world.

“They’re making up a larger and larger percentage of what we’re seeing here,” John says.

For Bob, the changes in the business—from downsizing to breed changing—are a logical response to current conditions. “We’ve seen years and years of wasting water, and it’s catching up with us,” he says. “The decisions that were made 40 years ago are coming back home.”

Bruce McCarl, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University, views the Josserands’ decision to move away from feedlots as the type of adaptation needed to cope with climate change.

“We see farmers and ranchers adapting to climate change in our studies, even if they don’t call it climate change,” he says. Some of the more obvious changes include switching to drip irrigation systems and substituting corn and other water-intensive crops for drought-tolerating grains such as sorghum.

It’s a good read, though if you’re anything like me you’ll probably find yourself grinding your teeth a few times. People can believe whatever crazy things they want about climate change, and they can vote for politicians who nurture those crazy beliefs, but when their own eyes and their own bottom lines tell them they have to adapt or die, they adapt. And the actions they take ultimately help fight against climate change, even if their words and beliefs are still obstacles.

Still more drought may be coming

Just what you wanted to hear, right? There is at least the chance of some good news, however.

The drought that has plagued Texas is virtually certain to continue at least until early summer, climate experts said on Tuesday at a conference in Fort Worth. But what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

The main cause of the drought, the most intense in recorded Texas history, is back-to-back episodes of La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that almost always brings dry conditions to the state. The bad news is that, based on the historical record, there is a 40 percent chance of La Niña returning for a third consecutive year, according to Klaus Wolter, a research associate with the Earth Research Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That record consists of 10 instances over the past century in which La Niña has appeared for two years in a row (normally it does not recur). However, Wolter emphasized, 10 episodes is a fairly limited data set. And — here’s the good news — the other six times, an El Niño has followed the two La Niñas, bringing unusually wet weather.

“If we were to switch to El Niño next summer, the record of the last decade would indeed favor an end of the 2010-2012 drought,” according to Wolter.

That would be nice if it happened, because the aquifers really need the rain.

NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, satellites are unique because rather than measuring light on wavelengths, they measure gravity based on mass variations, making them sensitive to changes in water on or below the Earth’s surface, no matter how deep, NASA hydrologist Matthew Rodell explained.

Scientists took that data and combined it with other information to create a numerical model that simulates the water redistribution after it rains. They then were able to conclude that the aquifers are at lows seen only 2 percent of the time since 1948, when mapping began.

“People rely on groundwater, especially in times like this when it’s dry, because groundwater provides a reserve of water when it doesn’t rain,” Rodell said. “But we’re in a deficit now. We’re drawing down our bank account.”

It doesn’t look like those supplies will be replenished by rain in the coming months, Fuchs said. The La Nina weather pattern currently cooling the Pacific Ocean typically causes warmer, drier weather in Texas and other parts of the South. The best hope for rain, he believes, will be in the spring.

“The likelihood of recovery or any substantial improvements is probably not going to be there,” Fuchs said.

That Trib story above says that the city of Odessa has received about three-quarters of a inch of rain all year. You can see why they might be a little desperate. Better root for El Niño to pay us a visit, and the sooner the better.

The time to plan for the future was in the past

Here’s a piece in the Rio Grande Guardian by my one-time history professor Char Miller that’s worth your time to read:

Today is World Water Day, a U.N.-sponsored event that is an ideal time for communities to strategize about their future water needs.

For San Antonio (and South Texas), this year’s theme–Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge–could not be more appropriate. Globally and locally, rapid urbanization is intensifying pressure on the capacity of metropolitan regions to insure all people’s access to potable water.

Compared to mega-cities such as Lagos or Mumbai, San Antonio seems to be in ok shape. Few express disquiet that a city whose population has doubled since the 1980s, and is still absorbing more water-hungry souls, might be in jeopardy. As for its continued dependence on what is essentially a single source of water, the Edwards Aquifer, how bad can that be?

Click the link to find the answer. Water rights, and the fight for access to water between cities and rural areas in Texas, is already a big deal, and will continue to be so. Water conservation is a big part of the puzzle, but San Antonio already does pretty well on that point. There’s still more for it to do to keep up with its growing population and their need for the wet stuff.

How dry we are

Rain, rain, please don’t go away. Texas is too dry to play.

Pedernales Falls, for the most part, doesn’t.

Lake Travis is becoming a lake in name only, regressing in some areas almost to the old Colorado River channel and in others leaving hundreds of yards of dry, cracked lake bed strewn with discarded fishing rods, beer cans and golf balls, and boathouses and docks to nowhere.

“We should leave a bottle down here saying, ‘We walked here in ’09,” Austin appliance repairman Bill Cosby said, as he picked his way through what used to be the lake’s Hurst Creek section.

In New Braunfels, visitors preparing to tube down some stretches of the Comal or Guadalupe rivers — especially those of a certain size and girth — are advised to take particular caution.

“If you’re not careful, there are several places where your butt could hit the bottom,” said J.R. Perez of New Braunfels.

Across Austin and Central Texas, the great drought of 2009 and its accompanying record high temperatures are taking their toll on recreational activities. Only one public boat ramp remains open on Lake Travis, and fewer than a dozen trailers were parked Saturday morning near the Mansfield Dam.

The good news, as the story indicates, is that for the most part businesses that depend on the tourist trade have been able to ride this out and are doing well. That wasn’t the case the last time a big weather event affected lakes and rivers in Central Texas. That time, the problem was too much rain, and I’m sure some day that will be the problem again. In the meantime, the bad news is that the drought this year is affecting non-touristy places as well.

Jim Stinson, general manager of The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency which oversees 11 municipal utility districts in the community, has proposed permanently implementing a two-day weekly watering schedule in The Woodlands. He also is promoting the idea as a director of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, a county-wide group charged with managing the county’s underground water supply.

“We know the scientists have told us that we have tapped out our water supply,” Stinson said. “The environmentalists have told us we can’t build any more reservoirs. We’ve got to learn to live responsibly with the water we’ve got.”

Montgomery County relies solely on three underground aquifers for its water supply and its water providers face a deadline of 2015 to reduce the use of that water by 30 percent. The aquifer can replenish about 64,000 acre feet annually through rainfall and runoff, and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District has issued permits to pump 78,000 acre feet annually.

A three-year study is currently under way by the U.S. Geological Survey to determine what the impact has been on the aquifers and whether water levels are declining.

Needless to say, that’s not sustainable, and it’s not going to be fixed by some El Nino-affected weather that’s expected later this year. Just something to keep in mind, because problems like that are going to become more common as our population increases.

By the way, all this drought has contributed to this being one of the hottest years on record for Texas. I’m sure that comes as no surprise.