By Carol Brzozowski
Almost every aspect of life has been affected by ongoing drought conditions in Texas.
“Drought rarely is as devastating to the landscape and economy of Texas as it has been in the past 16 months,” states George W. Bomar, State Meteorologist for Texas in an early 2012 “Update on the Drought in Texas” report.
The unprecedented drought brought record losses to the agricultural sector, which has taken more than a $5 billion hit. Nurseries and landscaping companies are also hurting. Several small utilities have been within 90 days of completely running out of water. Some communities entered permanent drought restrictions. The number of water rights calls to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) jumped from three in 2009 to 15 in 2011. Wells have been going dry.
Some schools resorted to non-flushing portable sanitation units because public water was unavailable. Power providers prepared for the potential loss of generating capacity. In some cases, the drought has pitted the interests of one group against another.
Comer Tuck, director of the conservation division for the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) observes a great deal of finger-pointing, with groups of water users competing with each other for water and lobbing negative comments back and forth.
“Our Colorado River lake system is designed to release water for rice farming along the coast. With the drought, there have been some . . . curtailments,” says Tuck.
“Residents around the lakes complain that water’s being given away and wasted by the rice farmers and lowering their river basin. It’s pitting one water user group against another,” he continues, laying out the question that dominates every debate: “who needs to use the water, and who should be able to use the water?”
Residents, meanwhile, on lakefront property pump water from the lake for free. “So the municipalities that get water from that lake are complaining about the lakeshore residents who don’t pay anything and are taking water from the municipalities,” says Tuck.
Bomar notes that the current “extreme to exceptional” drought is one of the worst one-year episodes in the state’s history. More than half of the state got caught in a drought more intense than the peak scarcely experienced during the infamous drought of the mid-1950s.
While December brought 4 to 5 inches of rainfall in some areas, it was not enough to keep 2011 from being one of the driest years since the end of the 19th century, Bomar points out. As such, the year’s “exceptionally ferocious” drought reduced lake water, streamflow, and water tables to “alarmingly low levels”, notes Bomar.
Compounding the issue: a hot growing season that hit some areas particularly hard. San Angelo, for example, experienced 100 days of 100°F heat, 40 days more than the previous “hot” summer. In fact, according to Bomar, the summer of 2011 in Texas was the hottest season in recorded weather history for any state in the Union. In one particularly striking example, Bomar says every city in the state counted more days of triple-digit heat than ever before.
Tuck notes that “on the positive side,” public awareness of the situation was high. Most letters in the local newspapers called for even more conservation efforts in response to the drought.
“A lot of the public recognizes that water supplies can be short and agree we need to develop more water supplies and do more conservation,” he says.
The drought has created an opportunity to apply practices and technologies for achieving long-term conservation—in some cases at low costs, says Neal Wilkens, director of the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University.
The drought has enabled the Institute and other groups and individuals to refocus efforts on water reuse, desalination, outdoor water efficiency, and the energy-water nexus, says Wilkens, adding that a new water conservation and technology center in San Antonio has opened up to focus on those themes. Wilkens says he believes the water conservation technology center will become a center of industry and job production in the San Antonio area.
“There’s no reason why San Antonio, Texas, with the challenges it has with water, ought not turn into the water conservation capital of the South—maybe the nation,” says Wilkens. “It’s a city that practically gets all of its water from a replenished underground aquifer. Every morning, when you wake up in San Antonio and turn on the news, the very first thing they report is the aquifer level. What other city does that? It puts water use in your face every morning. The aquifer level is on the front page of the paper.”
The agricultural sector is now incorporating evapotranspiration technology in its practices. Desalination is being combined with wind energy in Loving County. Infrastructure is being updated to accommodate growing populations and the increasing demands for water that will bring. States agencies have pooled together knowledge and resources to attack the issue in a singularly focused, prioritized fashion. Utilities are now conducting water audits and writing water conservation plans.
And everyone from those state agencies down to a single-family homeowner has learned more about water efficiency. Those conservation efforts may prove to extend beyond being a short-term solution as dry weather may be a long-term way of life for Texans.
Most climate projections don't show much change in Texas precipitation over the next few decades, notes John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University.
“A lot will depend on natural climate variations, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation,” he says. “Right now, both are favoring dry weather for Texas, so we will continue to have frequent or persistent droughts until at least one of them changes in the next three to 15 years. Then, rain will be plentiful for a while.”
Nielson-Gammon points out temperatures are increasing globally and within Texas, and that temperature trend is projected to continue.
|Photo: JIM STALEY
Most climate projections don’t show much change in Texas precipitation.
Some blame the state’s extreme weather on climate change.
“This means increased evaporation, and therefore reduced streamflow and reduced reservoir levels on top of increased water demand and reduced cooling
efficiency,” he adds.
Drought contingency plans are sometimes confused with water conservation plans, says Tuck. What makes them different is they fall under the jurisdiction of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s regulatory agency.
“During a drought, the TCEQ is the regulatory agency for municipal water suppliers,” says Tuck. “All municipal water suppliers are required to have a drought contingency plan, which states what they’ll do in times of drought and in case of emergency, such as equipment failure, pumps burning out.”
The drought contingency plan has stages, also called triggers. Each utility sets its own triggers and responses of what to do when the water supply reaches each level.
“When the utilities start getting in a reduced water supply situation, they need to report to the TCEQ that they’ve implemented their drought contingency plan and they’re in stage one, stage two, or stage three of their drought contingency plan, which is various levels of water use reduction,” says Tuck.
It generally begins with landscape water. Stage one may call for watering no more than twice a week, stage two narrows it to once-weekly watering, and at some point there is no watering at all, Tuck notes.
“Stages four and five are the most drastic reductions,” he says. “It’s non-essential water use, no drinking water at restaurants, car washes are shut down, and you can’t water the Little League ballparks. You go to fairly severe restrictions on water usage if it’s deemed necessary.”
In mid- to late February this year, of the 4,000 retail water providers in the state, 1,000 of them asked their customers to reduce outdoor watering 20 to 25%. Out of that 1,000, 642 were under a mandatory schedule in which the utility mandated restrictions for watering once a week only. The other 368 are in voluntary restrictions.
“You can see a large number of municipal utilities in the state are still suffering from and trying to reduce the impact of the drought,” says Tuck.
Additionally, a small number of utilities—mostly the smaller ones—had indicated to TCEQ that they were within 90 days of running out of water.
“At that point, something needs to be done,” points out Tuck. “They start looking for emergency sources.”
Among its many responsibilities, the TWDB is engaged in water conservation education and promotion. The board has developed a number of educational materials, including curriculum for every level from fourth grade through high school. The TWDB also produces water conservation brochures for distribution to utilities and organizations. The board provides several hundreds of copies at no cost, and then will sell additional brochures at cost.
Drought creates an even more compelling need for water audits to assess water loss due to such factors as unauthorized consumption, metering inaccuracy and data handling errors, leakage in transmission and main pipes, and from water storage tanks and service connection leaks to the meter.
Since 2003, Texas water utilities have been required by law to file a standardized water audit every five years. The TWDB outlined specific water audit methodology for all utilities to follow that measures efficiency and water accountability, quantifies water losses, and ensures common water loss reporting across the state. All of the nearly 4,000 retail municipal public water providers in Texas were requested to provide a water loss audit for 2010, says Tuck.
“We received about 2,000 of those back, but the ones we received represent about 85% of the total water use in the state,” he says. “We got all of the large ones; the smaller utilities account for many of the ones we did not get back.”
The audit offers an indication of where utilities may be losing water.
“In many cases, they don’t know they’re losing water, either through inaccurate meters, water being given away to Little League ballparks that they don’t measure, or through leaks and breaks,” says Tuck.
Many utilities are experiencing breaks and leaks in the system due to water lines breaking when soil “shrinks,” he adds.
“We collect that information and try to identify areas to pinpoint our efforts on trying to reduce water loss in the municipal utility systems,” says Tuck.
The TWDB serves as a financing agency for water and wastewater facilities in the state.
“In order to receive financial assistance from us, a utility has to have a water conservation plan,” he says. “We review them. They are recipients of our financial assistance and have to provide annual reports on those conservation plans indicating how they’re making their improvements and going toward meeting their targets and goals for reducing water loss and reducing their Gallons Per Capita Per Day use for what’s in their water conservation plan.”
The TWDB has made changes in the past few years that require utilities serving more than 3,300 connections or some 10,000 people to have water conservation plans and do the annual reports.
“Water conservation is the long-term continuous effort to make more efficient use of water and reduce the amount of water being used, whether that’s municipalities, agricultural, industry—whatever,” says Tuck. “It generally includes education, promotion, some sort of financial incentives, rebate programs, and occasionally some regulatory aspects.”
During a drought period, conservation is a partial solution to the potential or real shortages created during the drought, says Tuck.
Water conservation plans “should make an impact and should help during times of drought,” says Tuck. “If people know how to reduce their water use in their home and reduce their landscape watering use, or if farmers know how to make more efficient use of water, or industry knows how to make more efficient use of water, that knowledge should help during a drought situation, and should help the utility or the water user, themselves.”
Some systems in Texas are perpetually under a drought restriction.
“The triggers that move from voluntary to mandatory, and the severity of those restrictions, are determined based on those drought contingency plans,” says Ann Morrow, TCEQ spokeswoman.
Although the drought status changes from week to week, some higher than average rains through the winter have brought some relief, Morrow notes.
“However, because the deficit was so great going into winter, we still have a long ways to go to be completely out of drought,” she adds.
Until now, the TCEQ did not have to invest a lot of time engaged in its task of managing senior priority calls on water rights.
“A senior priority call means a senior water rights holder is not getting the water they’re entitled to because of a shortage in the area in the water body and they’re issuing a call to junior rights holders further upstream from them,” says Morrow.
There were only three calls in 2009 in the same basin that required managing. In contrast, the TCEQ had to manage has many as 15 in 2011, going into 2012.
“Water rights are assessed on the basis of priority date, so the earlier that date is, the greater the chance that the water rights user has of attaining all of the water in that right,” says Morrow. “We generally say ‘First in time, first in rights’.”
There are some exceptions, such as livestock water requirements.
The TCEQ assesses whether or not curtailment of the junior rights holders will meet the need of the senior rights holder.
“If they do, then we’ll issue a senior priority call and curtail the right-holders further upstream, in part or entirely, until those conditions improve,” says Morrow.
Among its extensive outreach
efforts to public water systems and the media, the TCEQ conducts workshops for public drinking water systems to assist them in identifying options so they don’t run out of water.
“We want them to be prepared for what might happen if their water source dries up or their demand exceeds their supply so they can take action now to avoid running out,” says Morrow.
The TCEQ encourages conservation.
“We also help them determine what might work for them in terms of interconnections with neighboring systems, such as drilling deeper wells,” she says.
The TCEQ also has water conservation items available to public water systems to send to customers. Its website has a page that links to tips on saving water. The commission sends information targeted to meteorologists throughout the state to encourage water conservation.
Morrow says the public has become savvy about water conservation.
“In West Texas, they’ve dealt with water shortages for a millennia,” she says. “In East Texas, it’s something fairly new to them. In general, people are thinking to be aware and concerned, and are taking measures to avoid shortages.”
A Coordinated Response
Since almost every aspect of life in Texas has been impacted by the drought, a cooperative effort among state agencies has been critical to a coordinated and effective response. Many Texas agencies have come together to form the Texas Drought Preparedness Council as part of the Texas Department of Public Safety. They represent the various factions of the impact of water shortages and include the state’s: Division of Emergency Management, Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Department of Agriculture, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, Department of Transportation, Department of Rural Affairs, the state climatologist, TWDB, TCEQ, Forest Service, Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Alliance of Groundwater Districts, Economic Development & Tourism, Division of Emergency Management, and Agroterrorism and Disaster Preparedness.
The group meets weekly during the drought to keep track of its present and predicted status and to focus on utilities that are within 90 days of running out of water, Tuck says.
“By pooling the knowledge and resources of these multiple agencies, the plan is to be able to help these utilities before they run out of water,” he says. “If they do run out of water, they go to measures like bringing in bottled water from the water companies and even calling in the National Guard to bring in water buffaloes for emergency use if they actually do run out of water. It’s an effort of all statewide agencies to offer what assistance they can to help a community that’s getting close to running out of water because of the drought.”
Still, those are short-term measures, Tuck points out. “The utilities need to be looking at long-range plans of either adding more groundwater wells or finding somebody who can build a pipeline to them and provide them surface water from a different reservoir,” he says.
Sometimes, regulatory agencies will loosen up a bit on the regulations and requirements to allow a water line to be laid across a property without being properly buried for a while, Tuck says.
“Or, sometimes we have to broker assistance between utilities where one utility has an adequate water supply to share with somebody 10 or 15 miles away, but maybe they haven’t really gotten along,” he says, adding there are several cases of communities helping each other, allowing an emergency temporarily pipeline to be laid a few miles from one town to another.
During times of drought, the TCEQ consults with public water systems regarding drought implementation plans; tracks public drinking water systems under voluntary and mandatory water use restrictions; tracks and manages water rights draws of surface water, and conducts training in TCEQ regional offices to equip inspectors in non-watermaster areas to measure and monitor surface water flows and ensure senior water right priority calls are respected by protecting the water flow.
The commission also staffs a drought information hotline, provides drought-related content for a webpage, conducts weekly meetings across programs to provide updates, monitors status and forecasts, addresses concerns, sends targeted news releases in areas where water rights have been curtailed to provide information and encourage conservation, and participates with other state agencies on the Joint Information Council and Drought Preparedness Taskforce.
“We work with public drinking water systems if they report that they may be short of water or may be facing a shortage of water to identify alternative sources of water, but they’re the ones who make the final decision,” notes Morrow.
“In Texas, public drinking water systems are legally required to have an improved drought contingency plan which sets various stages of restrictions based on supply,” says Morrow. “That’s going to vary depending on the individual water systems and their sources. Depending on their storage capacity or the weather and how much rain they had will determine what those targets are.”
Considering all of the various components involved in contemporary water management in Texas—including demand management, infrastructure, source creation and protection, water audits, and the energy/water nexus—Tuck says the highest priority is to make sure that communities that are on the watch list do not run out of water.
The second priority is to “learn lessons from this, try to be better prepared, and have a better agency and statewide plan for dealing with drought if this one continues statewide or to the magnitude it was last year, or the next one in three to five years when it comes about.”
The third is for local utilities—after having received state agency help—to consider what has happened in their communities and do everything they can to plan for developing and having adequate water supplies in the future for whenever the next drought does occur, Tuck says.
“It will have to come from whatever the physical supply of water may be: surface water, groundwater, desalination—whatever is suitable for them—and they need to bite the bullet and know that it’s going to cost money to build a new pipeline, build a desalination plant, pay somebody to supply you water. You have to pay for it one way or another.”
Local communities must take responsibility to implement their plans, Tuck says.
“They may have a plan in the regional water plans and the state water plan, but eventually it gets back down to communities,” he says. “They have to take hold and implement what they need to do and finance it one way or another. They may borrow money from us to do it, but they will have to pay for it eventually.”
Groundwater is the source of 60% of the 16.1 million acre-feet of water used in the state.
“We have 23 major aquifers and a dozen or more minor aquifers,” says Tuck. “There have been instances in some rural areas where homes and ranch wells are going dry because of mostly small shallow wells. There have been some sporadic examples of groundwater supplies being lost during the drought.”
For the most part, there have not been widespread outages of municipal water supplies due to groundwater decline, Tuck notes.
“They essentially had the same water supply available in the Ogallala Aquifer last year for farming and irrigation in the High Plains, but the crop yields suffered because that wasn’t adequate to offset the rainfall and the high temperatures,” says Tuck. “It wasn’t that the water supply was reduced; it was essentially the same. But it just wasn’t enough to meet the demands of that exceedingly hot and dry year last year.”
As for surface water, a number of Texas lakes were significantly low or dry, creating problems for municipalities needing to draw water from them and creating a decline in available water supply, Tuck notes.
“In the Austin area, we got quite a bit of rainfall in the last two or three months, more than normal for this time of year, but it’s been smaller amounts at a time,” says Tuck. “The ground was so dry that it just all went in. The Highland Lakes above Austin have only come up just a little bit. They’re still at historical low points because we haven’t had the big storms that produce runoffs.”
The Water/Energy Nexus
Could the drought mean electrical deficiencies for Texans as well? The water/energy nexus is another element of concern to Texans. While water is essential to the production of most electricity and while electric generators use a lot of water, they actually consume very little of it, says John Fainter, president and CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas.
In Texas, electric power generation accounts for about 4% of water demand, 1% more than that of the nationwide total water consumption by entities that generate electricity, says Fainter.
“The vast majority of water used by electric generators is recirculated, either within the plant, or to the streams or lakes whence they came,” he adds.
Electric power generators are working with state regulators “to ensure they have an adequate water supply available, while consuming no more than absolutely necessary. Given the importance of reliable electricity to the state’s economy, ensuring a regular supply of water for electricity generation should be a high priority for all Texans,” says Fainter.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) operates the electric grid, managing the deregulated market for 75% of the state. Trip Dogget, ERCOT CEO, points out the “record drought conditions resulted in the water sources for 11,000 MW of generation to be at historically low levels. Low water levels could result in some portion of this generating capacity becoming unavailable.”
Dogget attributes that to one of the worst droughts in history of Texas during the summer of 2011, with 88% of the state having reached an “exceptional” drought level in October.
Recent rains have improved the current situation and given the latest information, Dogget says he doesn’t anticipate a significant power generation loss due to the drought this summer.
“However, if the drought continues into 2013, we could have more severe losses of generation,” he cautions.
A joint effort between the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) and the Dallas Water Utilities (DWU) to construct a 150-mile pipeline project from East Texas is expected to ensure adequate water delivery to a growing Dallas/Fort Worth population, while saving the entities as much as $1 billion in collaborative pumping costs. Construction is expected to begin in 2014, and water is expected to start flowing through the new pipeline in 2018. It will serve an additional 1.6 million people and could potentially help TRWD and DWU meet water needs through 2040. This project has been years in the making, primarily because of the expected population increase in the region, says Kathy Berek, an engineer who is TRWD’s Director of Special Projects.
“It takes a decade to plan and construct a project like this that coincides with what we expect growth in the area to be over the next decade,” notes Berek.
The recent drought did not have a substantial impact on the pipeline plans, according to Berek.
“We use a five-year drought of record to project the supplies we’ll need in the worst-case scenario,” she says. “The drought this past year—even though it was one of the state’s worst—wasn’t the drought of record for five years. We’ve already received some rainfall relief, so we’re still on schedule.”
TRWD manages four major reservoirs and corresponding transmission facilities in the North Texas area. The pipeline will enable the water district to pump an additional 197 million gallons per day from the Richland-Chambers and Cedar Creek Reservoirs southeast of Dallas to its Tarrant County terminal storage reservoirs such as Lake Benbrook, Lake Arlington, and Eagle Mountain Lake.
Dallas will be able to pump up to 150 million gallons per day from Lake Palestine into its system at Bachman Water Treatment Plant. The pipeline project is expected to cost $2.3 billion and is being financed through the issuance of tax-exempt bonds. The water district will build the pipeline and pay approximately $1.3 billion of the cost, with Dallas paying the rest.
Berek notes that two entities working together offers the best outcome for the project, because it saves taxpayer dollars. Berek also says it has been important to keep the lines of communication open between the entities and set baseline for agreements.
“We’ve kept talking to each other on program management, land issues, and engineering. And we are working very hard along the route to work with the landowners and develop the information for the environmental permit to get the project done,” she says.
|Photo: BERT KAUFMAN
Green lawns are the first casualties of extreme drought.
|Photo: JON SULLIVAN
In a state full of memorable events, 2011’s summer drought will be remembered.
The cooperative effort may lay the foundation for future collaboration on projects bringing water from Oklahoma, northeast Texas, or Louisiana, water officials say. Eight different contractors have been hired to conduct pipeline design work on 150-mile pipeline.
Berek says there are efficiencies in spreading the work out among different engineering firms, such as having one design firm working on the three booster pump stations and another working on the three lake pump stations. Several programwide services are being provided by different firms. For example, there is a single surveyor and single geotechnical firm that are completing work over the entire pipeline project.
“We are striving for consistency of design so that in the future operation and maintenance will be streamlined,” she says.
Water conservation efforts and audits have helped stretch out the need for the project, Berek adds.
“Because we need to pump from quite a distance away, we want to try to maximize our existing water resources. Working with Dallas has opened up some possibilities for us to back each other up. We can provide drought and emergency benefits to each other by connecting the systems,” she says.
Redundancies will allow the cities to help each other in the case of droughts, pipeline breaks, or lake water quality events that may temporarily prompt the closure of one reservoir.
Berek notes because the second highest budget item in the pipeline project is the pumping costs, the water/energy nexus is important.
“We’ll save nearly $1 billion pumping together rather than each of us having our own separate projects. Once you are moving water, it does not require much more power to move more,” says Berek.
“We also do several different things to maximize our energy use, including filling up our western gravity reservoirs when power is less expensive in the winter, and then gravity-feeding in the summer,” she says. “We have also positioned a reservoir at a high point in the Integrated Pipeline Project that will allow us to do some time-of-day pumping, where we pump more in the evening and then use the gravity during the day, so we’re looking at energy efficiencies there.”
“This situation in Texas is serious, and we are seeing some of the expected movements from the state, mostly trying to fund the supply side projects, which is the classic reaction to drought,” says Jason Bethke, vice president for Global Water Resources. The company owns and operates regulated water and wastewater utilities in Arizona.
“Talk about saving water, but fund finding more water. I think our sector just doesn’t believe conservation can work quickly enough, when in fact, they are just not using the demand-side management tools that are now available,” explains Bethke.
Irrigation is also one of the most contested uses of water, especially during a drought. Local governments and agencies are adapting “smart” irrigation solutions to create immediate reductions in outdoor water consumption of between 25 and 40%. Successful technologies also deliver long-term efficiency.
Residential and commercial landscapes present the greatest water conservation opportunity for Texas, says Chris Spain, Chief Strategy Officer for HydroPoint Data Systems, manufacturer of WeatherTRAK Smart Irrigation Controllers. With 50 to 60% of urban water supply used outdoors in most metropolitan areas, a typical response to water constraints is to remove or replace expansive turf areas, Spain points out.
“Yet, keeping healthy grass and trees in place removes CO2, eliminates harmful water runoff and pollution, and ends the vicious cycle of how to maintain sustainable water quality and supply,” he says.
WeatherTRAK calculates irrigation quantities based on high-resolution weather data sent to the controller, gathering data onsite and transferring it wirelessly to a dashboard, giving customers the ability to monitor what’s happening in real time so they can respond accordingly. Houston deployed WeatherTRAK smart irrigation controllers across city parks and facilities in 2011 after an unprecedented 30% residential water rate hike in 2010.
Global Water Resources’ groundwater mining projects in Arizona have allowed the company to develop demand reduction strategies.
“We’ve been trying to figure out good ways to create a sustainable infrastructure,” says Bethke. “What we started doing with Fathom is reaching out to municipalities because we knew they were going to have these two issues: one is budget constraints and the other was the price of water was going up.”
Texas not only faces that, but an aging infrastructure as well, Bethke notes.
“In other places, it’s regulatory compliance and increasing power costs,” he says. “The reality for communities is that water prices are going up.”
While focusing on the supply side does solve the problem, it can be an expensive way to do so, Bethke says.
“They only look at the demand-side management tools that are available after they remedy the supply,” he says of water utilities. “What sometimes happens is you don’t need as much of a structure as you thought you needed because you now can conserve for real.”
Fathom goes through a city’s customer information systems and billing activities and fixes the various data to ensure the municipality is collecting all of the revenue.
“We almost always find some revenue in that process,” says Bethke. “Now they can have perfect billing and wrap around that things like websites and iPhone apps and push alert notifications to customers so that they can know their water usage on a daily basis or even an hourly basis.”
That, in turn, allows a utility to create peer pressure—an effective conservation tool—and also send pricing signals to residents to get them to use less water.
“With that combination, you can actually impact how much water your community is really using to a significant amount, in many cases 20%,” says Bethke. “Once you decrease the need for water like that across your community, suddenly the drought issues aren’t quite so grave.”
Past, Present, and Future
Bomar, the state meteorologist, notes unparalleled heat and the absence of rainfall is the manifestation of a “fairly intense” episode of La Niña, an abnormal cooling of the surface waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, Bomar points out. Those episodes alternate with El Niño’s warming of the seawater and Texas weather has been under the influence of La Niña since the summer of 2010, Bomar says, adding that while the presence of an influential oscillation of sea surface temperatures in the north Atlantic could be another factor, La Niña is “the main culprit” for the Texas drought.
Most La Niña episodes last between one and two years, with many having two or three phases, Bomar says. While the current La Niña peaked a year ago, it had a resurgence last summer. Though the most recent phase has not been as strong, it has prolonged the drought, Bomar says.
What’s in store for the future?
La Niña’s second phase is nearing its peak, and computer models predict its future point to a return to near-normal water temperatures in the central Pacific halfway through 2012, Bomar says. It’s unlikely La Niña could resurge for a third phase, and the pendulum will likely swing in the direction of wet weather, Bomar says. But that is not foreseen for one to three seasons.
“Spring is usually the one season we rely upon to deliver the volumes of rainfall to quash a bad drought,” he says. “The rest of the winter will be quite dry, and there is little to suggest spring will live up to its potential to end our drought. Even the approaching summer does not appear capable of producing the kind of rains we need, especially if the hurricane season is as uneventful as last year’s. We have little reason to expect major relief from drought—especially the hydrologic variety—until deep into 2012, if then.”
The drought also has brought to the forefront the debate over pricing water.
Wilkens is an advocate or pricing water “appropriately.”
“It might be painful,” he adds. “We have to price it so that it actually does become something that has a consequence for overuse. That can become controversial, because you have to have water to live, but there’s some base level of water that obviously is right.”
Beyond the pricing issue is appropriately measuring it, Wilkens says.
“Then we have to figure out ways to use water as a denominator in how we think about our economy,” he says. “If we begin to think of gross domestic product per gallon as opposed to per capita, that’s an interesting way of looking at water use. How much economic activity can we create per gallon of water? That begins to drive efficiency.”
Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.