John Nielsen-Gammon

Austinites hit by the downpour this week may not realize Texas faces a water shortage that threatens the state’s long-term ability to provide water for citizens and businesses.

Dan Hardin, water resource planning director at the Texas Water Development Board, said the state’s economy would lose $12 billion annually if current drought conditions continue and the state fails to enact legislation that would address the statewide water shortage. If conditions worsen, the state’s economy would lose $116 billion per year during the 2060s.

“That’s lost income to farmers, manufacturers, employees of those businesses that might lose jobs because of businesses’ inability to operate ... it’s lost personal income,” Hardin said.

Hardin said the state’s water supply is not keeping up with increased demand caused by the state’s growing population. He said the supply is projected to lose 1.75 million acre-feet of water, or 570.5 billion gallons, by 2060. One acre-foot is equivalent to approximately 326,000 gallons.

The state’s current water supply is about 17 million acre-feet and is projected to drop to about 15 million by the 2060s.

At the same time, Hardin said demand for water is expected to increase from about 18 million acre-feet to 22 million by the 2060s.

The state’s population is projected to grow from 26 million to about 46 million by 2060, but a projected 1.5 million people would not move to Texas if the state does not address the need for water infrastructure, Hardin said.

“If we don’t have water supplies, we won’t have that population growth,” Hardin said.

In response to ongoing drought conditions, the development board crafted the 2012 State Water Plan, which calls for $53 billion over 50 years to fund water infrastructure and conservation projects throughout the state.

Under the plan, projects would focus on three areas: conservation and re-use of existing water supplies without developing new water sources; the development of infrastructure to manage and deliver existing water supplies to areas in need; and developing new supplies through desalination and tapping more groundwater supplies and building reservoirs.

The state’s growing population and inadequate water infrastructure are not the only obstacle standing in the way of eradicating the state’s water shortage. State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said rising temperatures, which result in greater evaporation rates, will also contribute to the depletion of water
supplies statewide.

Nielsen-Gammon said although rainfall in Texas has increased over the past century, climate models predict that annual rainfall will decrease by 2060.

“It’s hard to say whether [the models] are wrong about them or if the trend will reverse itself,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “It’s too early to tell.”

Texas lawmakers have sought to address the state’s water infrastructure needs during the current legislative session. In his State of the State Address in January, Gov. Rick Perry advocated using $3.7 billion from the state’s $12 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, nicknamed the Rainy Day Fund, to fund water infrastructure projects in addition to transportation infrastructure.

Legislators have filed a number of bills to fund water infrastructure projects statewide.

One proposal, passed by the House late last month, would create the State Water Implementation Fund, which would take $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to help finance the development board’s projects through bonds. The Senate is considering a similar proposal.

Hardin said drought conditions, particularly conditions the state endured in 2011, focused attention on the state’s infrastructure and may help the state change its attitude in how it addresses water issues in the future.

“Most of us grew up believing water is bountiful and rivers will always run full, but that’s not the case,” Hardin said. “Water’s a limited resource, and we need to recognize that it should be valued.”

This Sept. 6 photo shows a dried-up area of Lake EV Spence outside of Robert Lee. This year Texans have endured a record-setting drought, voracious wildfires and sweltering triple-digit heat that has tested the limits of the state’s electric grid several times this summer.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

FORT WORTH — The Texas drought that has led to crop losses and devastating wildfires is expected to last another year and possibly longer, weather experts said Monday.

Texas and some surrounding states are prone to long-term drought over the next decade based on weather patterns, but that doesn’t mean it will happen, said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

“We’re at a period of enhanced drought susceptibility; the possibility exists,” Nielsen-Gammon said Monday at an annual climate conference, also featuring National Weather Service forecasters and climatologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The weather conditions that can lead to drought usually last about 20 years once a century or so, and this pattern started in 2000, he said. But Texas had not been in a state of drought since then. There was a lot of rainfall in 2007, he said.

The current drought started last fall with the arrival of the La Nina weather condition that causes below-normal rainfall, and then in the spring, the wettest months of the year were anything but. Now the drought is expected to drag on for another year because La Nina has returned, said Victor Murphy, a climate expert with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

There’s a 25 percent chance Texas’ drought will persist another five years, Nielsen-Gammon said.

“Once we get past this period of vulnerability, the chances go down,” he said.

This is the worst one-year drought in Texas history, already costing the agriculture and cattle industries more than $5 billion.

The low rainfall and scorching temperatures have dried up many riverbeds, prompting some wildlife biologists to rescue threatened fish that are found only in one Texas river. Hundreds of wildfires have blackened some 6,000 square miles and destroyed more than 2,700 homes in the state since the fire season started nearly a year ago.

Nielsen-Gammon said it’s too soon to predict if this will surpass the state’s worst drought in history, which was from 1949 to 1957.

Texas got 30 to 50 percent less rain than normal, and temperatures rose above average during that time. Water supplies ran so low some communities had to import it from Oklahoma. Farms and ranches failed. And the lack of rain actually changed the state’s demographics because so many families fled rural agricultural areas for cities.

Printed on October 4, 2011 as: Drought may persist up to five years