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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.

"The paradox of environmental impacts of drought is: precisely the time when the environment needs the water the most is when the human users are least likely to give it up," said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas' state climatologist.

Conditions are so poor along the Colorado River basin, which feeds the Highland Lakes, it constitutes a drought event that happens only once every 20 to 50 years, Nielson-Gammon said, referring to the drought map released Feb. 6 by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

"That's how dry it is in that area," he said.

And that is what Ryan Rowney, executive manager of water operations at the Lower Colorado River Authority, faces. As winter ends, the lakes he oversees are at lower levels than they were last year at this time. Releasing water downstream is out of the question, and now his goal is keeping the lakes at a level that would prevent it from falling into an emergency state that would force 20 percent cuts on all users.

So the authority has asked the state to grant an emergency request that allows them to raise the trigger at which they can halt downstream releases. That has pitted urban and suburban dwellers — who relish their boating, golf and lake tourism — against rural farmers and environmentalists. The authority's request for emergency stopgap measures indicates conditions are worse than they were in the 1950s.

For Rowney, it is the present and the future that concern him.

"We're living this drought right now. What we know is this is a severe, significant drought. We're managing the water supply wisely, but we don't know when or how it's going to end," he said.

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