Dried: Texas cities in fear of running out of water

The American West is going through the driest period in human history, a giant wave that threatens health, agriculture, and entire ways of life. dried He studies the terrible effects of drought on the hardest-hit states – as well as the solutions Americans are embracing.

AUSTIN, Texas – As the western United States suffers its worst drought in a thousand years, the government of Texas, a state facing a unique set of dangers from severe weather, is finally beginning to deal with the threat posed by climate change. Long term water supply.

Texas’ situation is dire enough that in July, a Republican majority committee in the state legislature voted unanimously to require the state water planning board to consult with the state climate scientist as it advises cities to plan for the state’s future water needs.

Rule change ‘eliminates the possibility that the political climate could be harmful’ [local water officials’] Senator Nathan Johnson (D), a leading supporter of the transition, told The Hill.

“It’s a kind of protection for the regional water authorities from political pressure that would damage their ability to do what they have to do,” Johnson said.

But that process won’t pay off for years — and Texans are increasingly concerned that the crisis is here now.

It never rains but it rains

The latest evidence of the volatile climate was the torrential rains last month that stunned the city of Johnson in Dallas — a record rainfall that halted the city’s long drought, eroding soil and acres of asphalt infrastructure to flood much of the city.

Climate scientist Kathryn Hayhoe told The Hill that these types of events offer a glimpse into the future that Texas can expect.

“I’ve seen record dry conditions week after week after week — and then all of a sudden, it’s summer rain in one day,” Hayhoe said.

For much of the state, she said, annual levels of precipitation may not change much — but that average masking potentially deadly conditions from droughts and floods. The amount of precipitation remains the same. But the distribution is changing. It’s getting extreme in both directions.”

Even if precipitation totals and distribution remain the same — which is unlikely — the simple fact of warming under climate change could portend water shortages, state climate scientist John Nielsen-Gammon told The Hill.

“Lakes evaporate faster, and water in the land evaporates faster,” said Nielsen-Gammon, who is also a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

This is a problem for a country whose water storage strategy relies heavily on a group of nearly 200 outdoor tanks, exposed at all times to sunlight. Moisture absorbed into the air can also exacerbate lightning storms, making rain events large enough to overwhelm the soil’s ability to absorb it and the watershed infrastructure to trap it.

Looming population growth

When these devastating effects add to the population boom projected by the Texas Water Development Board—which by 2070 is expected to rise from about 30 million to 52 million—they create a situation that worries many water planners interviewed by The Hill.

Much of this growth is expected to occur along the dry, weak I-35 corridor that connects Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley to San Antonio and Austin and the vast array of towns and cities surrounding Dallas-Fort Worth. Roughly the highway separates the wet East Texas from its dry West.

With this influx of people will come new industries that rely on water, from factories like Tesla’s new facility outside of Austin to more than a dozen high-tech semiconductor factories. And even with climate change making the weather more extreme than ever, the country is struggling hard to protect fossil fuels. They also take in a lot of water, especially when extracting oil and gas through fracking.

“If any community in the state, and its water supply, fail, that is big national and international news, and then it will have an impact on economic growth and perception in Texas,” said Robert Mays of the Meadows Water Center. The environment told local station KXAN, which is owned by The Hill’s parent company, Nexstar Media.

The imminent prospect of an even more intense and unpredictable cycle of drought and flood presents a frightening challenge to water planners.

State water experts told The Hill that it’s also one — at least in regards to climate change — local officials have largely been left to fend for themselves.

At the moment, it seems that the members of the Water Development Board “certainly not address [climate issues] Nielsen-Gammon, a state climate scientist, told The Hill.

He added that, in contrast to the state’s specific, data-driven approach to planning for population growth, “there is no formal expectation regarding streamflow or groundwater recharge from the effects of climate change.”

“It would be really nice if individual water suppliers weren’t left to their own devices to tackle this problem.”

But the Texas Water Development Board’s planning process has traditionally looked back, not forward, at envisioning the worst-case scenario that managers should plan for.

“By not thinking about climate change, we are relying on water that probably won’t exist in the future,” Maas told KXAN. “This increases the risk of reservoirs drying up and people losing their water resources.”

However, integrating climate planning is very difficult.

“The key word in climate is complex,” Matt Nelson, a water resources expert with the Texas Water Development Council, told The Hill.

Even at the state level, Nelson said, the models are fuzzy, leaving the effects coming on Earth unclear. This, he added, means that state officials who move quickly, for example, to oversupply are at risk of installing expensive and potentially “unadaptive” infrastructure with the goal of solving the wrong problem.

He said the long-term trend of climate change – to the extent that is evident – could easily be mired in Texas weather chaos in the near term.

“There could be a greater risk in the near term than in the long term,” Nelson said.

Local communities take action

Some individual water suppliers viewed the absence of the state as an invitation to make their own plans.

For Austin, the ongoing threat of climate change has led the city to consider its vulnerability — and secure its own water supply after 2100, when its population is expected to triple from 1.1. million to 3.3 million.

“Water utilities are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. Austin Water’s program manager Marisa Flores Gonzalez told The Hill that the nature of our product must be to be responsive and adaptive to these changes as they happen in real time.

During the next turbulent century, said Flores Gonzalez, “we may have periods of time when we have a lot of water — more water than we want.”

“But we need to be able to take advantage of these supplies when they are present during medium or wet conditions and store that water so that we can make use of it during times of drought.”

Austin is exploring a number of ways to do this. City officials are exploring sites where excess water can be injected into natural underground caverns in periods of abundance — in effect creating an artificial aquifer, immune to evaporation, that the city can tap into during the long droughts to come.

Groundwater injection is a procedure followed by many other cities across the state—most notably San Antonio, an hour’s drive south of Austin, but also smaller cities like El Paso and even the popular music Mecca Kerrville.

Dallas-Fort Worth and other cities in North Texas are building new reservoirs as quickly as possible, and Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are exploring ways for water to flow from other basins as they look to a future where their own stores will operate. be stressful.

But Hayhoe said but with “already out of the box things certainly unprecedented are being discussed, we often overlook the easiest and most common – which is memorization”.

For example, Austin has reduced the amount of water needed per person per day by about a third since the 1990s, which is about a quarter of the way through a campaign to convert all analog water meters in the city to smart leak-detection meters.

The city is experimenting with pilot wastewater recycling systems. Who treats wastewater on site for reuse in irrigation, fountains and restrooms — which could eventually reduce water demand by 75 percent, KXAN reports.

At the extreme end of this strategy, the residents of Big Spring, Texas – in the state’s arid extreme west – Drinking pure and treated waste watera system officially called “direct drinking reuse” and sometimes derided as a “toilet to take advantage of,” public broadcaster WHYY reports.

“The lowest point I’ve ever seen”

The Water Development Council’s Nelson says the council is working to integrate usable climate models into its planning process. Council researchers are working with Nielsen-Gammon to try to devise standardized rules and models that are flexible enough to apply to government planning processes, such as trying to figure out how changing temperature levels affect evaporation from lakes and rivers in different regions.

The state itself is lagging behind growing cities like Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, where local governments have made expensive climate predictions—many of which are already securing new supplies against their burgeoning residents.

But most of Texas’ 1,200+ incorporated cities and towns don’t have the resources to do their own climate planning — and they’re unlikely to have multiple options to draw upon in the event of a crisis.

It happens as far west as Austin, where former cattle ranches in the area known as the Hill Country — famous for its wineries and swimming pits — are being converted into residential developments, requiring water for taps, toilets, and lawns.

With explosive growth, wells [are] At the lowest point in my lifeHydrologist Douglas Wehrman told KXAN.

These communities are draining the lower Trinity aquifer to “the tipping point where our demand for water resources has exceeded the ability of our aquifers and rivers to replenish their resources,” Wehrmann added.

In Hill Country, this meant a boom in business for “water cutters” making deliveries For families whose wells no longer reach the shrinking groundwater tableKXAN reported.

It is a cruel irony of Texas’ water policies that those municipalities most vulnerable to climate change are likely to be the least prepared or able to do so on their own.

The smaller the city, said Nielsen-Gammon, “the less water is supplied — the less likely they are to be able to deal with climate change and may not want to think about it because they have more pressing concerns.”

Perry Fowler of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network told KXAN that those bodies are most at risk from climate change.

“If local entities are not really looking to strengthen their water sources, they are already behind the eight ball in that,” Fowler said.

Mia Abe and Christopher Adams of KXAN contributed to this report.

Previously in this series:

The Texas cattle industry faces an existential crisis caused by a historic drought

Lakes Mead and Powell lie at the center of the largest western drought in history

Seven statistics that explain the epic drought of the West

Why is agriculture in the Great Plains particularly vulnerable to drought

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