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Can Austin survive the current Texas drought? Part 1

There is sound science that says there is likely to be big trouble, even in supplying Austin’s current population with enough water.

drought map

Federal officials have designated portions of 11 drought-ridden Western and Central states as primary natural disaster areas. Map from UDSA.gov. Image from NBCDFW.com.

First of three.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

 

The threat of drought haunts Austin

AUSTIN, Texas — I have lived in Austin almost 60 years. Ten years ago if someone had asked me whether Austin could survive a drought like that which it is now experiencing, I would have answered “yes” without much reflection.

If somebody asks me the same question today, I will say that Austin MIGHT be able to pull through the next five or 10 years, but only with luck, and with the help of a much different lifestyle that will necessarily require strict water rationing and conservation. The rest of this essay is intended to explain the reasons behind my change of opinion.

The Highland Lakes are water reservoirs created by building dams along the Colorado River. The Lower Colorado River Authority started managing these Highland Lake reservoirs in 1942, originally to tame flooding, to supply irrigation water, and to provide electrical power.

Since that time, water sales have become only a small part of LCRA business compared to managing other kinds of electrical power generation. During the same time, the importance of the Highland Lakes in providing a dependable water supply to urban areas, especially Austin, has become of critical importance.

The Texas “drought of record” of the 1950s, particularly 1954-56, has officially been adopted as a state benchmark to deal with water planning in our perpetually water-deficient state. This extreme experience and its data are used today to argue that Austin could probably survive almost any drought or extended water shortage. If Austin got through those dry times, it can probably get through anything.

Today, however, Lakes Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, and Travis are only 38% full. Although Austin itself still gets moderate rain, and even experienced severe flooding recently, almost all of Austin’s water comes as runoff from intermittent rainstorms in the much drier part of Texas north and west of Austin.

Those weather patterns now seem to be changing. Higher summer temperatures increase evaporation. As the earth’s surface warms, the air and ground get drier, more rainwater evaporates, and plants stay dormant less of the year. These factors among others have greatly decreased the tributary inflows into Austin’s upstream Highland Lake reservoirs.

There is sound science that says there is likely be big trouble, even in supplying Austin’s current population with enough water. Historically, Texas has always faced drought, even much more severe than the drought of record seen in our recent history. The analysis of Texas tree rings tells us we should normally expect a “drought of record” or worse every hundred years or so.

That was before climate change. The climate scientists have been predicting for decades that a lot of the American Southwest, including West Texas, the major source of Austin’s water, would gradually begin to face something akin to perpetual drought, due to global warming caused by burning fossil fuels.

The business-friendly Texas Republicans are trying to convince the rest of the country to move to Texas.

If you ask the business-friendly Texas Republicans, those politicians who effectively run the state of Texas, one of their top goals is to try to convince the rest of the United States to move to Texas. Texas Governor Rick Perry travels the county irritating other governors by suggesting that everyone needs to come to Texas, the big state where everything is cheaper. If the scientists say there isn’t going to be enough water to do that, then we need to hire new scientists.

Let us now take a closer look at the current drought situation and see what our Texas politicians are saying. There is a disconnect.

How bad is it?

According to NBC Dallas-Ft. Worth, “Federal officials have designated portions of 11 drought-ridden Western and Central states as primary natural disaster areas, highlighting the financial strain the lack of rain is likely to bring to farmers in those regions.” [See map above.]

California has gotten a huge amount of recent drought publicity, mostly because of its large population and its importance as a national breadbasket, with both these needs competing for the same water. The scope of the federal declaration is the big red area covering the Southwest on the map above, making it clear that the current drought should be seen as a cross-country mega-drought. Climate experts are saying that it likely signifies a “dust-bowlification” of the American Southwest.

How bad is it in Texas? Some West Texas reservoirs, like Lubbock’s Meridian Lake, have gotten too dry to use, forcing Lubbock to turn to groundwater. The Texas Panhandle is now in worse shape than it was in the the 1950s. Most Texas ranchers who have not already gone broke are losing money. Now California ranchers are actually shipping cattle to Texas, apparently based on the theory that the Texas drought is a different drought!

Some of California’s herd will be headed to Texas, which is recovering from its own severe drought. That state’s herd of five million head of cattle has shrunk over the past few years by a quarter, said Jason Cleere, a rancher and beef cattle specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension at Texas A&M University. But as the drought has eased in most of Texas, the herd is being rebuilt, creating a market for California’s ranchers looking to sell. “There’s a lot of room for more cows to come into our state, and for ranchers to add some back,” Cleere said.

Texas politicians mostly deny man-made climate change is happening to Texas

Texas politicians, starting with Gov. Rick Perry at the top, but also including most of the Republicans who run the state, seek to reward the business interests who fund their political campaigns. In Texas, where there are no limits on campaign contributions, the top contributors to Texas politicians typically tend to be home builders and various land development interests. For example the late Bob Perry, a home builder who was the top Texas political contributor, had recently given over $10 million.

Texas is a state where it is impossible to bribe a politician, just so long as you call it a campaign contribution.

As they say, Texas is a state where it is impossible to bribe a politician, just so long as you call it a campaign contribution. The home builders hope to profit by persuading politicians to attract or create new (low wage) jobs, and new business investments, which of course would expand the market for new homes. All this while opposing any limits or regulations on growth, and while expecting local taxes on current residents to provide the roads — and now water — needed for development.

Whenever climate science, environmental considerations, or legal reform get in the way of making money on land development, the Texas bankers, developers, and land speculators know how to play to win. Since the Texas constitution was written mainly by and for the landed gentry of Texas after the Civil War, this legacy means that Texas landowners have “property rights” — meaning the right to develop almost anything in the untaxed, unincorporated suburban areas outside a central city.

There is the prospect of making billions of dollars from suburban sprawl land development surrounding the major metropolitan areas where most Texans now live. Natural limits to growth? Any limits on land development come as bad news and have always been strongly opposed by the well-organized, well-funded Texas growth lobby. The big money in Texas is largely made through selling and developing raw land for ever-expanding rings of suburban sprawl growth that surround its big metropolitan areas.

Austin is now in the midst of a highly profitable Austin-area growth boom, Climate change denial prevails through most state agencies (although the state climatologist believes that climate change is real). The politicians who make the rules outrank the scientists no matter how good the science, or how urgent the scientific warnings.

In Texas, climate science is considered subversive because it tells the politicians stuff they would rather deny. When Gov. Rick Perry was running for president he made his climate change denial very clear. Perry considers global warming a scientific hoax.

In accord with climate science denial, a new special report by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs warns of severe Texas water shortages to come due to population growth while never mentioning either global warming or climate change! Her 23-page report titled “Texas Water Report: Going Deeper for the Solution,” is available online. This report has a map of Texas surface reservoirs showing that many reservoirs in the west half of Texas are severely depleted. “According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), 46 of the state’s public water systems were at risk of running out of water within 180 days as of Jan. 8, 2014.” (Page 8)

Evidence of pervasive climate change denial is to be seen even in mainstream Texas media.

Evidence of pervasive climate change denial is to be seen even in mainstream Texas media. For example, a front page October 6, 2013, Austin American-Statesman article said that if current trends continued, then Austin’s Highland lakes reservoirs could go completely dry in three years, perhaps toward the end of 2016. This article tells its readers that Austin is a city in serious water trouble, while never mentioning that the probable cause of the drought severity is global warming and climate change!

Water is for fighting

If there is one misguided Texas water planning policy that should win a blue ribbon for bad planning, it is probably the fact that there are two completely different bodies of law that apply to surface water and underground water. Surface water is in short supply, tightly regulated, and mostly already fully allocated to users. Underground water, on the other hand, is governed by “right of capture” law which holds that any property owner has the right to pump whatever they can from beneath the land they own.

The reality is that it is all the same water. In a world that makes sense, all of this water needs to be regulated by the same law, or else some deep pocket water-hustlers are liable to come along and try to steal all the ground water.

Nate Blakeslee recently wrote an article in Texas Monthly describing the needless water wars that are arising as a result of these policies. Corporate water lobbyists like Forestar are trying to obtain the legal right to drain the most easily tapped aquifers, and to pipe this water to supply private developer interests around Austin.

The rule of capture has been the law of the land for more than one hundred years, and it worked well enough when Texas was a rural state with plenty of surface water to go around. But rural interests realized they needed protection when population growth forced cities to begin coveting groundwater in nearby counties. Rather than declare groundwater a public good—anathema in a state that celebrates property rights—the Legislature began encouraging the creation of groundwater conservation districts composed of locally elected boards. These districts, which proliferated in the eighties and nineties, were empowered to limit pumping to prevent aquifers from being drained, finally putting a curb on the rule of capture, at least in theory. Landowners who in the past pumped huge volumes from their wells were generally allowed to continue doing so, even if it caused their neighbors’ wells to dry up. In fact, most districts are reluctant to deny any permit request from locals; they see their mission as chiefly to prevent massive water grabs by nearby cities. The problem is that districts are finding it increasingly hard to say no to anyone.

Since Texas has been abnormally dry in the last few years, especially 2011, various acute shortages have been cropping up. That is a political problem; the Texas public want their officials to do something that doesn’t cost too much to make such problems go away.

Gov. Rick Perry responded to the drought problem by successfully promoting Proposition 6 in November 2013; it was a band-aid approach rather than a policy that deals with the Texas water crisis in depth. Instead, Proposition 6 is more like a $2 billion line of credit on a loan for a few reservoirs and water pipelines to take poorly regulated ground water from rural areas and transfer it to urban areas, where it can be sold at a higher price.

The same pattern of rural areas being sacrificed to the needs of urban areas can be seen in this unified appeal from County Judges who regard these water transfers as a fight for local community survival.

Depriving the Lower Colorado River basin of fresh water … will lead to the devastation of our state’s second largest bay and estuary system, sound a death knell for agriculture in the coastal plains and destroy the largest riverine ecosystem in our state…The environment, ecosystem and agriculture of our great state are worth saving, and we should all share in the sacrifices necessary to save these treasures.

Next week: In “Can Austin survive the current Texas drought?, Part 2,” we will continue by taking a close look at the transportation planning being done in the Austin area, and how this planning is related to the water issue. We will conclude with a review of the best and latest climate science. How long can we afford to do little about the current trends?

[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.]

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