Drought in Texas October 2011

A special e-newsletter about dealing with the Texas drought

If drought continues, water policy changes to come, says Texas A&M expert

By Kathy Wythe

The year is 2020 and Texas is in its tenth year of an exceptional drought of record. Scattered along the Texas coast, large desalination plants are being built to transform salty water from the Gulf of Mexico into drinking water for a large portion of the state’s population. The norm for lawns is brown, not green; and rice farmers are starting all over with a different crop.

While this is a fictional scenario, the real possibility of Texas suffering through another 10-year drought as it did in the 1950s is not.

In a Texas A&M University news release, Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s climatologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M, said Texas has experienced droughts that lasted several years and “the same ocean conditions that seem to have contributed to the 1950s drought have been back for several years now and may last another five to 15 years.”

But even before the state gets to 2020, Dr. Ronald Kaiser, professor and chair of the Texas A&M University Water Program, suggests the state will see policy and legislative changes if the drought persists.

If the drought lasts another two to four years, Kaiser believes that the state will place more emphasis on water conservation by cities and agriculture with changes in agricultural practices in some areas. 

Because surface water supplies will be more limited, agriculture that relies on those supplies will be “at greater risk,” he said. “We’ll probably see pressure requiring agriculture to adopt conservation practices or plant different crops that are less water consumptive,” he said. “Water restrictions on the Colorado River will probably result in rice farmers having to plant a crop other than rice.”

Groundwater resources that have historically supported irrigation agriculture and rural development will be under greater stress. 

With limited water and higher energy costs to pump the water, High Plains farmers may convert to even more dryland farming and change pivot irrigation practices from full circle irrigation to half circle irrigation, Kaiser predicted. 

“An extended drought will test the resiliency and adaptability of Texas agriculture,” he said.

Cities and urban areas will increasingly seek more water from aquifers if the drought lasts for a significant period, Kaiser said.  

“There may be a serious effort to adjudicate (determine judicially) groundwater rights in Texas as we have done for surface water,” he said. “The Legislature will probably be given options from different interest groups to establish pumping limitations on aquifers most under stress from over-pumping.”

One adjudication process may be for the state to adopt a regional approach to pumping limitations similar to that used by the Edwards Aquifer Authority. “In that case the Legislature may end up determining aquifer caps,” he said.

With limited surface water during droughts, Kaiser said, the approach of granting water based on seniority, or historical use, will come under further scrutiny.

“I suspect if there is a conflict between agricultural water rights that are senior (first in time, first in right) and cities’ water needs, or conflicts between cities we will see the Legislature move to establish to a different preference system,” he said. “That would be a big shift.”

Although the state’s draft Water for Texas-2012 state water plan recommends construction of 26 new reservoirs to help meet the increased water needs of the state, Kaiser does not believe all those reservoirs will be constructed. “Imagine if we have reservoirs that are nearly depleted today as a result of the drought, why would we build more reservoirs that would probably face the same fate,” he said.

Kaiser believes the state will eventually put a greater emphasis on desalination of salty, or brackish water but the costs to do that will be high. “Texas has large supplies of brackish groundwater that can be tapped,” he said. “However that water will be expensive to develop and it may be that only cities and industry will be able to afford it.”

“The era of cheap and plentiful water is coming to an end,” he said.   

Texas, however, will never run out of water. “We have a wonderful resource called the Gulf of Mexico and there is plenty of water there.”

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