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Impacts of Historic Drought Linger in Texas

February 13, 2014
Texas pond drought
  

By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI, Associated Press

Almost three years have passed since the rains returned and Texas emerged from a historic drought. Yet there still isn't enough water.

The impact of record-breaking heat and years of little or no rainfall can be felt long after a dry spell passes, and Texas is now struggling with the brunt of a historic yearlong drought that crippled the state's lakes, agriculture and water supplies.

"It's been a doozy of a drought," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "It's cumulative so that system has not recovered."

Officially, the drought that parched Texas starting in 2011 and its lingering effects are not as severe as the yearslong, record-making "drought of record" that stretched through the 1950s. That drought has since been the foundation of all water planning in the state.

But a combination of factors — including a rapidly expanding population, more upstream diversions to meet those growing needs and years without a major tropical system — have in some ways made this dry spell worse.

"More people, more straws in the drink, so you don't necessarily need a drought as in the '50s to see impacts worse than in the '50s. So that's what we're seeing," Svoboda said.

As a result, local authorities have lakes that have little to no water. That is forcing officials to prioritize how to distribute the dwindling water supplies while rushing to find new resources and rapidly building the necessary infrastructure in time for the next big drought, which climatologists say will become more of a norm due to global warming.

The Texas legislature, and then voters, approved taking $2 billion from a rainy day fund to pay for water infrastructure projects to mitigate the effects of the 2011 drought to a degree. But more than 50 percent of Texas is still in some level of drought.

The situation is especially dire in the Highland Lakes. The series of Central Texas reservoirs supply water to Austin and its suburbs, while also providing important freshwater supplies to bays on the Gulf Coast and irrigation for rice farmers. In the 1950s, a few flood events helped replenish the lake to some degree.

This time, there have been no floods. Two significant lakes, Buchanan and Travis, are only 38 percent full, and water flowing into the reservoirs is at a record low. And for the third consecutive year it is likely no water will be released downstream.

The authority that oversees the lakes, the Lower Colorado River Authority, prioritizes its users. The most important being people and industrial customers, such as power plants that need water to make electricity. Downstream rice farmers who need the water for irrigation, and the salty Gulf Coast bays that require freshwater inflows to maintain healthy ecosystems, can be cut off during years of drought, as has happened since 2012.

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