Since the epic drought of 2011, Texas’ water supply has improved overall, but some areas remain in critical condition.
When a drought begins, the drop in soil moisture and the associated losses in crops, yards, and greenery are the first impacts that can be readily seen. As overly dry conditions continue, other longer-term effects begin to take place which worsen as the drought persists. Stream flows and lake levels dwindle and wells begin to struggle. While precipitation can work wonders to green things up and improve short-term effects, the negative longer-term problems from an extended drought can be much harder to remediate.
In particular, it can take a while for low reservoir and groundwater levels to resolve. It takes higher-than-normal precipitation levels to restore reservoir, ground, drinking, and recreation water levels to their pre-drought levels. And the worse the drought has been, the longer it takes to recover. So while recent rainfall has caused some improvement, there is still a long way to go.
According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, Texas has seen rains of up to 6.51 inches in east Texas, which has improved conditions throughout this region. Additionally, recent rains in southeast Texas have brought this area out of severe drought into abnormal dryness and moderate drought. As of March 10, 2015, however, 41.62 percent of Texas (by area) is categorized as under severe drought conditions or worse. About 21 percent of the total population of Texas reside in these parched places. The situation has improved markedly since 2011, when virtually all of the land area of the state was suffering from one of the driest periods in history. Even so, many people are still affected by drought conditions, and this situation remains one of Texas’ biggest challenges.
Last July, I reported that state reservoirs were alarmingly empty, with the High Plains region below two percent, the South Central region at 48 percent, and the Southern region at 36 percent capacity. Unfortunately, the situation has only marginally improved and even worsened by some measures. According to the latest data from the Texas Water Development Board, the High Plains are now sitting at five percent storage on average, whereas the Low Rolling Plains, the Edwards Plateau, and the Southern regions are all below 40 percent capacity. Even the South Central region, which is home to Lake Travis, is currently only 44 percent full on average. Statewide, conservation volume is approximately 65 percent, down from 68 percent in June.
Groundwater levels are not much improved either. In December, monitor wells in San Antonio recorded a water level lower than the Stage III critical management level, and restrictions were declared by the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA). Fortunately, as of January, the aquifer level stands at 85.11 feet, which is 5.89 feet above the Stage III critical level, but it remains too close for comfort.
However, the news is not all bad. Despite the fact that January is typically the driest month of the year, Texas received more rain than average, and conservation storage rose over 695,000 acre-feet compared to December levels. Additionally, storage remains over 257,000 acre-feet higher than in January 2014. If we can keep moving in this direction, the problems will slowly resolve.
On November 5, 2013, the Texas Legislature and Texas voters passed Proposition 6, authorizing a $2 billion transfer from the Rainy Day Fund for the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas (SWIRFT). SWIFT funds provide financial assistance for projects that help develop drought-proof water supplies for Texas cities, including conservation, desalting seawater, and the development of pipelines and reservoirs.
Similarly, SWIRFT provides the state the authority to issue revenue bonds to finance Texas’ water plan. The goal of the funds is to ensure that Texans have adequate water supply during droughts. Applications for loans began in November of 2014 and the board expects to have the approval of applications by the summer of 2015. Thus, Texans should see projects and programs regarding water supply going into effect by this fall, albeit not at a pace to solve the problem on a permanent basis.
As we look around and see a little more green this spring than in the worst years of the drought, it is tempting to think that Texas is “out of the woods” as far as the water supply. Unfortunately, that is far from true. It may take years of good rains to fully recover, and it is crucial that we keep looking for ways to increase supplies and conserve what we have. It is equally critical that we continue to work toward being prepared for the inevitable future droughts. Demand for water will only increase in the future, as we continue to expand our production and hundreds of additional thirsty new Texans appear every day.