Most Texas cities just begin to feel pinch of mammoth drought, while rural damage is severe

Correction appended.

AUSTIN, Texas -- The central monitoring station of the Lower Colorado River Authority looks a bit like NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston some three hours away. Giant screens display constantly updated satellite images and visualized data sets, all while hovering above blinking terminals and computer stations.

It's from here that the LCRA monitors the weather and how it affects the water supply for more than 1.5 million municipal customers and several major agricultural sectors, especially the rice farming operations around Matagorda Bay. LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose says that the picture the monitors are now showing is one of the bleakest he's seen in his 16 years at his post.

"2009 was very similar to this as far as being on the extreme side of the drought, but I'd have to say that this summer is probably even worse than 2009," Rose said during a tour of the operations center. "At least we had a little bit of rain in the summer of 2009. This summer, we've hardly had any rain at all."

"It's been on the real extreme side," Rose added. Texas agriculture has been hit badly, with the state recently announcing losses of $5.2 billion to date. The Texas Water Development Board's forecasts suggest that the total economic hit to the state, through lost food production and curbs in manufacturing and recreational opportunities, could exceed $12 billion by year's end.

But during one recent visit, those terminals and monitoring stations sat empty -- Rose and a ClimateWire reporter were the only two people in the room. Indeed, there's a remarkable lack of panic at the LCRA in general, or anywhere else in the state's capital, for that matter.

Even though the great Texas drought of 2011 -- the worst one-year dry spell in recorded history -- has been a top story in this state for far longer than it has made national headlines, tighter conservation measures are only now coming online in the biggest cities. Austin has had in place Phase 1 mandatory restrictions for a year, according to Jason Hill at the city's water utility, limiting lawn watering to twice a week. But Phase 2, a once-per-week restriction, doesn't kick in until Sept. 6, he said. By contrast, many rural communities have been in their Phase 2 restrictions for months.

This year's severe drought has been one of the harshest tests yet for Texas' wide-ranging and complicated water supply system, which is facing further strains as the state's population rapidly increases. But even though the drought is now prompting vigorous debate over how best to ensure future supply, evidence from the state's sprawling urban centers, where the daily reality for Texans has changed very little, shows that the Lone Star State is by and large passing the test.

Long-range state water planning system

David Maidment, outgoing director of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas, Austin, says one likely reason for this is that Texas has been here before, and has been relying more heavily on long-standing water research from Texas A&M University and his center to plan well ahead for the worst-case scenarios that inevitably come.

"Drought is obviously a recurring fact of life in Texas, and this is the latest manifestation of something that's occurred numerous times before," Maidment said. "Drought is a phenomenon that varies with time, so that it's possible that for a certain duration, the current drought might be the worst that Texas has experienced, but it's certain that it's not the most sustained one."

Houston first limited lawn watering to twice a week just days ago, asking only for voluntary conservation measures before then. In the famously water-paranoid Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, surface supplies are only 18 percent or so below full capacity. Tighter restrictions are in place in the more vulnerable San Antonio area, but Corpus Christi, which draws from the same water shed, has so far implemented no restrictions on use.

State officials say this is thanks to a vigorous supply-side water planning system that looks out on a decadal scale, and a decentralized but all-inclusive mobilization to ensure that the state's 16 separate water districts are adequately prepared. And though some developers and some city governments are pointing to this year's record drought as evidence of a need for more reservoirs and supply infrastructure, critics of this approach say the evidence so far proves that the opposite is true.

"They really have done the development that needs to be done," said Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance. "The fact that they are using drought as a scare tactic to develop more isn't because they really need more."

At more than 25 million residents, Texas is the nation's second-largest state, but also one of the fastest-growing. Census data show that the state's population grew by nearly 5 million in one decade, expanding by 20.6 percent, compared to the 9.6 percent population growth experienced by the United States as a whole.


And most of the population boom has been felt in the cities. Austin grew by more than 20 percent, San Antonio 16 percent, and Fort Worth 38.6 percent. Dallas and Houston grew at less than the national rate, but their sprawling suburban areas added more.

Reservoirs cushion the shock

Officials at the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) say they are acutely aware of future population projections -- to more than 30 million by 2020 if current growth rates hold -- and the challenge of supplying more water to the cities. But they also express relative confidence that they can meet that challenge, through following current practice.

"That's what the regional water planning process is for," said Dan Hardin, director of water resources planning at TWDB.

As an expansive state with a large population and dry climate, Texas has a very decentralized, multifaceted water supply network, complete with overlapping regulatory agencies. It also has evolved one of the nation's most robust water supply monitoring and planning systems.

Groundwater and river tapping is supplemented with expansive reservoirs built to not only control flash flooding but also hold what little annual rain does fall in the arid state. As those reservoirs diminish, anxiety increases. The LCRA's main reservoirs, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, are now at less than 50 percent their normal capacity, and total water supply has dropped below 900,000 acre-feet, prompting the Phase 2 water restrictions in Austin's drought contingency plan.

Even longtime residents of Texas acknowledge that this year's drought has been unusually long and harsh. There has been no significant rainfall in the state since October, and the summer has brought a string of days and weeks with continuous 100-degree-plus temperatures. Ninety-four percent of Texas is categorized as facing severe drought stress, and agriculture has been decimated.

But the fact that the largest cities have reached the end of the summer with half or more of their supply intact, triggering usage restrictions only at the tail end of the drought, shows the system's resilience, officials say.

"We are charged with developing the projections of population and water demand over the 50-year planning horizon," TWDB's Hardin said. "If you look at the 2007 state water plan, we devoted a section to showing our past projections and how close they have been, just to kind of set up the story that we're pretty good at it."

Most agree that the drought of the 1950s, which stretched for roughly half a decade, is the worst on record, but recent years have seen a recurrence of longer, drier stretches of season.

During a 1994 drought, Corpus Christi was said to have been down to less than 300 days' worth of supply before the rains finally came. State officials say conditions during the 2009 drought most closely resemble those experienced this year, though 2011 has been even hotter and drier.

It was the harsh dry spell of 1997 that prompted the creation of an expansive digital map detailing where Texas gets its water and how much it has to use. That system informs the state's water permitting system, a largely first-come, first-serve process for determining who gets to draw what from surface water reserves. Groundwater is controlled entirely by landowners.

The state largely tapped existing research being conducted at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University to develop the information network. It was by pure luck that academics were carefully assessing where and how Texas gets its water and how much it has when Austin officials began scrambling to put something together, Maidment at the Center for Research in Water Resources (CRWR) said.

"What we have done at UT Austin is we did the geospatial data development for the permit system," Maidment explained. "We figure out how much flow is expected at the places where the permits are, compared with the flow that's at the places where it's measured."

'Bottom-up approach' has worked so far

The system is being strengthened further with the launch of an "integrated drought information system," a project by the University of Texas and TWDB's Texas Natural Resources Information System. The online information clearinghouse sorts through data supplied by the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the LCRA and the state's other main water jurisdictions. It has even become a model for the federal drought information system, its creators say.

"It takes information from several sources and integrates it into one platform, one medium," said Virginia Smith, a student at the Center for Research in Water Resources who finalized the first prototype in 2008. "The goal is to target the widest cross section possible of users," including landowners, agriculture operations and even recreational centers, she said.

That information, along with forward demand forecasts as laid out by the 10-year plans developed at the Texas Water Development Board, is disseminated to the state's 16 separate water regions, and further on to the various municipal and rural water utilities, about 1,500 in total by TWDB's count. They are left to decide for themselves how to deliver abundant and reliable water to consumers, but must also set up their own drought contingency plans that are filed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

The approach fits with the state's laissez-faire attitude toward regulation in general. But is it working?

"I think so," replied Robert Mace, deputy administrator of the water science and conservation program at TWDB. "The bottom-up approach has brought people to the table to talk about their water issues, educate each other about their water issues, and then find opportunities for synergy to solve the regions and state's water issues."

TWDB says it's getting very bad for some rural Texas towns, with a few down to water supplies of less than 60 to 90 days left. The hardest hit water jurisdictions are on a TCEQ watch list and have access to state government resources and, further out, infrastructure enhancements paid for by TWDB's special bonding authority.

Strong evidence of climate change

But TCEQ data show that there are still about as many jurisdictions with only voluntary restrictions in place as those with mandatory rules against watering and other restrictions -- including rules against serving water at restaurants unless customers ask for it, limited or outright bans on lawn watering, and even possible limits on carwash operations. And the largest urban centers are only now beginning to feel the pinch as they beef up their drought response measures.

TCEQ has been limiting junior rights holders' water use, but may being soon limiting how much senior permitted users can draw. The agency is also developing new rules under which rights can be temporarily suspended altogether, but so far, state water regulators are sticking to the existing playbook to cope.

The recent trend line -- short bursts of rain and flash flooding followed by long, drawn-out periods of little to no rain -- suggests strong evidence of climate change, whether or not Texans agree on the cause of the planet's warming trend, says LCRA meteorologist Rose. (Rick Perry, Texas' Republican governor, who is running for president, says he does not believe climate change has a human cause.)

"The climate seems to be changing, and we can't rely on every other year getting a big flood and getting a lot of water," Rose said. "We appear to be going into a period now that's going to feature longer dry periods and then short bursts of rain in between."

John Nielsen-Gammon, the state's top climatologist, based at Texas A&M University, has warned the state that current drought conditions will linger out into September. Beyond that, there is a 50-50 chance that the rains will return in the fall, but if the world returns to La NiƱa ocean temperature and current patterns in the Pacific, Texas may not seen any significant rainfall for many more months.

A continuation of dry conditions would make the situation worse for the largest urban centers. But officials and environmentalists alike concede that Austin, Dallas, Houston and other cities, where 82 percent of Texans live, are not likely to hit a point of crisis in the near future.

"Water planning is done based on the worst drought of record, and all of these cities have developed their water supply to be able to supply their needs in the worst drought of record," said Bezanson at the Texas Conservation Alliance. "And we're having the drought of record, and lo and behold, in most cases it has worked."

Clarification: A previous version was based on incorrect information that Austin's Phase 1 water restrictions were voluntary and that mandatory Phase 2 steps took effect last week.

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