2011 drought, Knox County

Brazos River in Knox County, 2011

By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News

With the worst one-year drought in recorded Texas history continuing and the state climatologist warning that dry conditions may drag on for years, this new warning from the Texas Water Development Board could hardly be more timely:

“In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”

That’s an excerpt from a letter by Edward G. Vaughan, the TWDB chairman, introducing its 2012 State Water Plan. The document [PDF] is the latest version of the water-supply blueprints that the agency produces every five years, incorporating 16 regional plans developed by groups in different parts of the state.

In outlining recommendations for avoiding a major water shortage by 2060, the new plan has a more detailed discussion of manmade climate change than the 2007 State Water Plan did, including advice for regional water planning groups on how to “address uncertainty and reduce risks” associated with its projected impacts. The Water Development Board drew criticism from some climate scientists for deciding not to factor climate change into its 2007 plan.

The draft 2012 plan warns that water demand driven by rising population is projected to outstrip supplies by a projected 8.3 million acre-feet of water by 2060 if the state doesn’t construct new supply projects or management strategies.

“Annual economic losses from not meeting water supply needs could result in a reduction in income of approximately $11.9 billion annually if current drought conditions approach the drought of record [a multi-year drought in the 1950s], and as much as $115.7 billion annually by 2060, with over a million lost jobs,” the plan warns.

Recommendations and costs

The regional planning bodies recommended 562 supply projects to meet extra needs during a drought, which would cumulatively provide 9.0 million acre-feet of water by 2060 – about eight percent more than the projected shortfall.

“The capital cost to design, construct or implement the recommended water management strategies and projects is $53 billion,” the plan says. “Municipal water providers are expected to need nearly $27 billion in state financial assistance to implement these strategies.”

In one of its six policy recommendations to the Texas Legislature, the plan urges lawmakers to “develop a long-term affordable, and sustainable method to provide financing assistance for implementation of the State Water Plan.”

Meeting the estimated costs of the plan’s projected water needs could prove to be a daunting challenge iflegislators continue to be as spending-averse as they were in their 2011 session.

The authors of the new draft plan noted that a survey conducted after the 2007 plan was published found that local and regional providers would need an estimated $17.1 billion from TWDB’s assistance programs to implement strategies in the plan. Lawmakers in 2007, 2009 and 2011 appropriated funds to subsidize the debt service on a total of $1.67 billion in bonds. Of that amount, only $100 million was appropriated in the 2011 session.

To fund the nearly $27 billion in state financial assistance that the new plan estimates will be needed to meet needs during future droughts, “it is imperative that the state determine a sustainable, long-term methodology to provide funding necessary to implement state water plan projects,” the draft says.

While it projects an 82 percent increase in state population from 2010 to 2060 (from 25.4 million to 46.3 million), the document projects water demand to increase by only 22 percent, from 18 million acre-feet per year to 22 million acre-feet in 2060.

“Existing water supplies – the amount of water that can be produced with current permits, current contracts, and existing infrastructure during drought – are projected to decrease about 10 percent, from about 17.0 million acre-feet in 2010 to about 15.3 million acre-feet in 2060, due primarily to Ogallala Aquifer depletion and reduced reliance on the Gulf Coast Aquifer.”

Regarding the 562 strategies identified by the regional planning groups to meet additional needs during drought, the draft plan says:

Water management strategies can include conservation, drought management, reservoirs, wells, water reuse, desalination plants, and others. About 34 percent of the volume of these strategies would come from conservation and reuse, about 17 percent from new major reservoirs, and about 34 percent from other surface water supplies.

Some planning groups recommend water management strategies that would provide more water than would be needed during a repeat of the drought of record. This “cushion” of additional supplies helps address risks and uncertainties that are inherent in the planning process, such as:

  • Greater population growth or higher water demands than projected;
  • Climate variability, including a drought worse than the one experienced during the 1950s; and
  • Difficulties in financing and implementing projects.

A years-long drought?

Last week, writing on his blog, the Texas state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, discussed the prospects for the current drought to continue for years to come, perhaps rivaling the 1950s “drought of record.” Nielsen-Gammon, who has said the current drought has been aggravated by man-made global warming, headlined the post “The drought of record was made to be broken.”

The longer [the drought] goes, the more likely it will surpass the previous drought of record. Indeed, in parts of East Texas, such as Lufkin, the past five years have already been the driest five years on record. And 2011 was so dry and hot, it’s as though we’ve already had two years of drought.


[T]his coming year looks very likely to be another dry one, and consequently it is very likely that next summer will have water shortages and drought problems even more severe than this summer. I don’t expect the rainfall to be so low again, mainly because it was so extremely low, but even 70 percent or 80 percent of normal will cause many reservoirs and aquifers to be lower next summer than this one.

What about a third year, or a fourth year? At this point, all I can say is that we’re in a period of frequent Texas drought until further notice. This period, with both the Pacific and Atlantic [conditions] working against us, might be over in a couple of years, or it might last another fifteen or twenty years. It seems likely to last another decade.

While not all of the next ten years are likely to be dry, they could be. In any case, if we’re ever going to break the drought of record, this is precisely the situation in which it would happen.

Addressing climate change

Climate scientists’ criticism of the 2007 State Water Plan focused on this passage: “When considering the uncertainties of population and water demand projections, the effect of climate change on the state’s water resources over the next 50 years is probably small enough that it is unnecessary to plan for it specifically.”

The Water Plan draft’s discussion of climate change engages the issue more directly. It discusses projections by climate scientists and TWDB’s own “ongoing research,” including a completed study to determine which global climate models are best suited for water planning in Texas. Cited references for this discussion include the 2007 reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (strongly challenged by some top state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry) and an analysis by Nielslen-Gammon entitled “The Changing Climate of Texas.”

The new plan notes that the agency has formed a staff work group to lead its efforts in monitoring the science of climate change, including studies about Texas; assessing climate models’ projected changes; analyzing and reporting data concerning natural variability, and evaluating “how resilient water management strategies are in adapting to climate change and how regional water planning groups might address the impacts.”

In contrast to the 2007 plan’s declaration that it was “unnecessary to plan for [climate change] specificially,” the 2012 draft has this advice for regional water planners:

Until better information is available to determine the impacts of climate change on water supplies and water management strategies evaluated during the planning process, regional water planning groups can continue to use safe yield (the annual amount of water that can be withdrawn from a reservoir for a period of time longer than the drought of record) and to plan for more water than required to meet needs, as methods to address uncertainty and reduce risks. TWDB will continue to monitor climate change policy and science and incorporate new developments into the cyclical planning process when appropriate. TWDB will also continue stakeholder and multi-disciplinary involvement on a regular basis to review and assess the progress of the agency’s efforts.

Elsewhere, the authors report that most planning regions base estimates on “firm yield,” the maximum water a reservoir can provide annually in conditions equal to the 1950s drought of record. But some use “safe yield,” which “allows a buffer to account for climate variability, including the possibility of a drought that might be worse than the drought of record.”

In the regional plans that went into the 2012 draft, planning groups in six of the 16 regions planned for a drought worse than the drought of record with changes in the assumptions involved in water-availability projections.

Before publishing the 2012 State Water Plan, TWDB officials will accept public comments through Oct. 25 and hold seven public meetings in various cities and a hearing in Austin. Details are available here.

[Disclosure: Nielsen-Gammon’s “The Changing Climate of Texas” is a chapter in in The Impact of Global Warming on Texas, a recently published book commissioned by the Houston Advanced Research Center, which publishes Texas Climate News.]

Image credit: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department