Posted by: Schuyler R. Thorpe | August 27, 2011

Texas Drought May Cost Billions In Damage

Texas’ Relentless Drought May End Up Costing Billions

“If you don’t like the weather, stick around.” So goes the old saying in Texas, a land where Mother Nature’s capricious ways are on display year round. Texas is a place where a storm cooked up in the mountains of Big Bend National Park can turn Hill Country creek beds into watery death traps within minutes, a state where a January dinner party can feature grilled steaks or pot roast, depending on which way the wind blows. But these days there is a tedious monotony to the weather.

Signaled by a dry fall last year, followed by a dry winter and then a dry spring, summer has turned torrid. The weather forecast has become a mantra of triple-digit temperatures and endless, cloudless blue skies, all symbolized by a giant H on the weather map, set among a sea of scarlet. That giant high-pressure dome has sat atop the state for over 30 days, and with August now under way, no relief is in sight.

The nine months from October 2010 through June of this year were the driest nine months on the books since the state began keeping records in 1895, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which oversees Central Texas’ vast system of lakes, dams and rivers that produces water and power for urban and rural customers alike. The Austin area is 16 in. below normal for rainfall, according to LCRA, while counties to the east of the Texas capital have a 20-in. deficit.

The Highland Lakes were built in the 1930s and ’40s, damming up sections of the Colorado River to help provide water and control flooding. This year the lakes are shrinking as the water retreats. Increased water use by a growing population and evaporation – no rain leads to warmer temperatures – means the lakes will continue to fall 1 ft. a week until October, LCRA predicts, stranding boat docks and revealing once flooded landmarks. In East Texas, the retreating waters of Lake Nacogdoches exposed debris from the 2003 crash of the space shuttle Columbia.

The drought is not the longest in Texas history. A 10-year drought that took hold in 1940s and lasted into the next decade holds the record, but that was in the days of radio and black-and-white television, when the weather was discussed at the coffee shop, not constantly tweeted about or glaring on iPhone screens. This year’s weather is feeding the 24-hour news cycle, prompting reporters to go beyond the fried-egg-on-the-sidewalk story. (How about chocolate-chip cookies baked on the dash of a parked car? It worked.) There is no new news in the weather, just a parade of whimsy and warning. This weekend, EMS workers medevacked a Highland Lakes resident to Austin after he fell asleep while sunbathing in the nude on a boat deck, resulting in second-degree burns over 40% of his body.

Staying out of the sun is the goal of most Texans. Shades down, ceiling fans on, temperatures set at 78°F with the hopes that the churning air conditioner is up to the task and that electricity will continue to flow during the peak hours – and the hottest – of 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. State energy officials have issued warnings of rolling blackouts, but, so far, none have kicked in.

The dog days of August have turned into the dog-less days. The playing fields are brown and yellow, dusty and cracked, and the grass crunches under feet. Neighbors emerge after sunset to walk the dogs, or turn on the sprinklers, if permitted. Most large urban areas have mandated water restrictions. (The exception is Fort Worth, which, while experiencing record water usage, has not reached the trigger point for once- or twice-weekly limits; the city has restricted daytime automatic sprinkling since 2007.) In Austin, only watering by hand is permitted during the day under current Stage 1 rules. The next stage would further limit watering to once a week, shut down the city’s fountains and allow water to be served in restaurants only upon a customer’s request. Sprinkler systems and soaker hoses can be utilized twice a week from 7 p.m. to midnight, and in this city of trees, Austinites keep an eye on treetops for browning leaves, a sure sign of stress for a lack of water to their deep roots. Water bills are running as high as electric bills for some Austin residents, prompting the city utility service to initiate a summer extended plan.

Thanks to campaigns and the realities of Texas gardening, xeriscaping has become more popular, but lawns remain ubiquitous and many municipal water systems are seeing usage increase. Plano, a modern suburb near Dallas, collected $3 million in additional revenue this year, according to the Dallas Morning News. A small part of that flow feeds garden ponds and birdbaths, and one bonus of the drought has been the abundance of wildlife drawn to urban gardens in search of water.

The state’s large cities, while urging conservation, face no imminent shortages. But the heat is stressing old infrastructure. In the small town of Kemp, southeast of Dallas, cracked land caused pipes to shift and burst, releasing 2 million gal. of water to leach into the thirsty soil. Residents were without water for 48 hours.

Drought for the city dweller may mean inconvenience, but for Texas’ rural residents it has been devastating. The drought of 2011 may be the costliest in Texas history for agriculture and may have repercussions well beyond the state’s borders, Mark Welch, an economist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, told the Jacksonville Daily Progress in East Texas. “It’s a 3, 4, 5 billion-dollar impact right now, just in Texas,” Welch said. “This is a big deal.”

The full cost of the drought, of course, won’t be known until it’s over, and the end is not in sight right now, says Ray Perryman, head of the Perryman Group, an economic- and financial-research company based in Waco. The most costly drought, so far, was in 2006 and caused $4.6 billion in direct agricultural losses. “This one is likely to be much worse,” Perryman says. “First, it appears it will be longer, hotter and drier. And second, commodity prices are higher this time.” Perryman estimates the direct losses could range from $7 billion to $8 billion with overall effects totaling $120 billion in Texas’ $1 trillion annual economy.

All five of the state’s major crops – wheat, corn, hay, sorghum and cotton – have suffered huge losses. Welch said the annual wheat yield has been cut in half and since most of that is exported overseas, the reduction will have profound effects on world markets in which prices are already high. While urban gardeners have watched their vegetable patches go into shutdown earlier than normal, the triple-digit temperatures have stalled major farm operations, and that is having a ripple effect on small-town economics.

In West Texas, the headlines are much the same. Cotton crops are down to 3.5 million bales from 5 million last year, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, and agriculture economists are estimating the drought could cost farmers and ranchers twice the losses of 2006.

Meanwhile, in South Texas, where an oil and gas boom is fueling economic activity, energy companies may find themselves competing for water with local farmers. Because of the geological nature of the Eagle Ford formation, fracking there requires three or four times as much water as needed in other parts of the state, according to Bloomberg News. Energy companies are using recycled fracking fluids and laying down limestone roads to cut down on dust from the normal dirt roads used in the fields. But demand is expected to rise tenfold in the next decade, according to the Texas Water Development Board, and without a recharge to the area reservoirs, oilmen may find themselves competing for water with farmers of sugar cane, melon, pepper and cotton.

In the past, Texas has done a “reasonable” job of water-resources planning, using a series of 50-year plans. But the shale formations that are attracting new oil discoveries do pose unique challenges, Perryman says. They generate enormous economic benefits, but the hydraulic fracturing techniques are water-intensive and have not been factored into long-range plans and are not reflected in historical usage data, Perryman adds. “The combination of that incremental demand with the extreme drought condition is posing some notable challenges that will require careful management, particularly if the drought persists.”

For now, all eyes are on the tropical waters off West Africa, hoping to see some swirl of stormy weather that may head Texas’ way. No one wants a Hurricane Katrina or a Rita, of course, but everyone hopes for a long soak from a slow-moving, less furious tropical storm, something that will heal the cracked land and fill the reservoirs across the state. Until then, it is best to just stay inside and watch as the birds dip into the birdbath for a meager beakful of water, and ponder how a squirrel who has splayed himself on a persimmon branch feels about the triple-digit doldrums.

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