April 29, 2014

Another year of Texas #drought is looking likely

Fortunately, Texas got spared from the recent spate of tornadoes that hit Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama. Unfortunately, the state in general got almost no rain from the recent front. And, there's no likely change of rain in the 10-day forecast, even as we're supposed to be in the heart of Texas' rainy season. Meanwhile, per the nice National Weather Service 90-day temperature map, it's likely going to be hot; a 103 today at Edinburg confirms a likely long, hot summer. (Other than the fringe possibility of a slightly-likely bigger than normal Southwestern monsoon spilling into West Texas, forecast for the state for summer precipitation is normal, no better than that, with at least as likely of odds of below normal precipitation along most of the Gulf Coast.)

Earlier this month, in part due to worries about another year likely to be drought-stricken, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality appointed an official water master for the lower Brazos. Further south, the Lower Colorado River Authority has already restricted for this year water releases below Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, the water storage and supply lakes for greater Austin, as the current storage levels of the two lakes is down to 36 percent of maximum. And, under even mild-to-moderate drought, levels by the end of summer will be below what they were a year ago, and likely below 2012 levels. That's even with LCRA municipal customers pushing water conservation on residents. 

Out in West Texas, where the Brazos, the Texas Colorado, and other rivers start, it’s not just “shaping up” dry, it’s already gotten there. Almost all of the state west of I-35 is in at least moderate drought, using official classification categories, and the majority is in severe drought or worse. If you want the not-so-pretty picture (though it does look better than California), just head to the United States Drought Monitor.

Sometimes, Texas can depend on hurricanes to break, or at least lessen, droughts, setting aside the problems of hurricane damage. Unfortunately, it looks like this won't be one of those years, either. As the story notes, blame El Niño, in part. Climate change scientists are, too. They've connected the swoop and plunge in this year's jet stream, the effect that has made California bone dry while pummeling the upper Midwest and Northeast with snow and low temperatures, to El Niño development connected with anthropogenic climate change.

And, there’s no guarantee this will end anytime immediately. We’re pretty much in the 1950s Texas drought records now, only with several times as many people in the state. Indeed, per that second LCRA graphic, and other things, by the end of this year, we may be beyond being in the 1950s. 

Related to that? There may have been worse droughts in the past than this one or the 1950s. On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, we know that’s the case. Witness the "demise" of the Anasazi, connected in part to severe drought by most anthropologists. Or, later, the Hohokam fleeing the Valley of the Sun due to drought. (Take notice, modern Phoenicians.)

That's another reason for smart, non-climate change denying Texans to not put too much stock in the State Water Implementation Fund, approved last year with the passage of Proposition 6 on the constitutional amendments election.

Several caveats apply. First, this fund is limited to helping projects listed in the State Water Plan. And, with $50 billion or so of projects listed in the SWP, without additional funding beyond a small amount from the Rainy Day Fund, which is loan-based, and not direct state funding, the SWIF will be of modest help. Per that loan-based part, a lot of smaller communities, especially in West Texas and doubly especially in areas near the water-draining work of oil fracking, simply can't afford major water supply upgrades. And, some water experts think the SWP, even, doesn't cover nearly all of the state's long-term water needs.

Related to that is the fact that we don’t know how much more water further development in oil and gas fracking will want. Or, as part of any good neighborliness, how much or how little oil and gas companies will offer to help small towns with their water needs.

Second,  the Texas Water Development Board is required to do its best to spend 10 percent of the funds for rural political subdivisions and agricultural water conservation, also of good news to this area. It also says the TWDB should spend 20 percent for water conservation and reuse. But, as many people noted before last November's vote, these are all "shoulds." None of them is a "shall." In short, Texas' small towns have no guarantees of special help. In fact, as the NYT points out, during last year's "priority call" on Brazos water, farmers lost out to cities even if they held older rights.

Third, we don’t know exactly how much our climate is likely to heat up in the future. Or dry up. That said, per the "swoop and plunge" of this year's jet stream, a tentative consensus of climate change scientists says that West Texas will likely get even drier in the future while Central Texas is probably neutral. And, per my comments above about long-term changes, outside of global warming, based on what we can tell about climate before modern Western record keeping, this should be a big caveat.

Related to that? A hotter Texas, if it is overall drier, means more evaporation from water storage lakes. Somehow, I doubt that the TWDB has even incorporated that into its thinking and planning. It's fine at suing New Mexico over Pecos River water, or raising issues with Mexico, but, as for doing things like regulating pump-until-its-dry overuse of the Ogallala Aquifer? Fuhgeddaboutit. And, for all we know, Texas rules on groundwater pumping are siphoning out water that eventually might percolate to the Pecos in New Mexico before it crosses the state line.

Hence the importance of today's Supreme Court ruling saying the EPA has powers to regulate interstate coal-fired electric plant pollution. While this decision just affected its powers on "traditional" pollutants like the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain, nonetheless, as the New York Times reports, it will likely form the basis of the EPA's plans later this year to officially start regulating CO2 emissions as a pollutant. (That said, expect those rules, along with a Keystone XL ruling, to be delayed until after midterm elections.)

Maybe, just maybe, all of this, if Democrats can hold the Senate, will actually get businessmen to start talking about a carbon tax.

All of these things will put more demand on water, and water dollars.

This isn’t meant to be alarmist.It is meant to inject a note of realism. At some point, to riff on the old saying, water may be worth fighting over even more than whiskey. It might even become worth as much of a fight as that newly-fracked Texas tea.

No comments: