Getting Serious About a Texas-Size Drought
Published: April 6, 2013
SOMETHING odd happened here last week.
But the relief, an answer to desperate prayers, is likely to be short-lived. The drought that has gripped much of Texas since the fall of 2010 shows few signs of abating soon. The latest forecasts say that parched West and South Texas will remain dry, and that the state is likely to see above-average temperatures this spring, increasing evaporation from already strained reservoirs. The conditions could lead to severe water restrictions in some parts of the state.
The implications have finally sunk in among lawmakers and business leaders here, who like to boast about the economic appeal of Texas’s low taxes and relaxed regulatory environment: no water equals no business. In a state fabled for its everything-is-bigger mentality, the idea of conserving resources is beginning to take hold. They are even turning sewage into drinking water.
The overwhelmingly conservative and tightfisted Texas House of Representatives recently voted to create a fund to finance water development and conservation projects and is considering allocating $2 billion to jump-start it. The State Senate is weighing a similar measure. The state’s water plan, released last year, recommends spending $57 billion (in 2013 dollars) over the next half-century to ensure there is enough water to go around; Texas’s population of 26 million is expected to grow by 80 percent by 2060.
Texas is also suing neighboring states to get more water. The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in two weeks in one of these cases, in which the authority that supplies water to Fort Worth and fast-growing surrounding communities is demanding more water from Oklahoma. Texas has accused New Mexico of siphoning off more than its share of water from the Rio Grande. The state is likewise arguing that under an international agreement, it is entitled to more water from Mexico, which has also been stricken by drought.
Other desperately dry states in the Midwest and West are facing similar challenges. Drought has hurt farmers in New Mexico and reduced California’s crucial mountain snowpack. Even the Great Lakes are at worryingly low levels. Drought conditions in the western half of the country are likely to persist at least through June, federal forecasters have warned. Over time, as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, hotter weather and longer dry spells will continue to threaten water supplies that are essential for development.
Already the drought has led to consideration of wild, expensive ideas, like piping water hundreds of miles from the Missouri River to the parched Colorado River basin. Water traditionally has been mostly a state or local issue because communities draw supplies from nearby rivers or aquifers. But increasingly it is becoming a national one. Economies will rise and fall on the availability of water, whose price is inexorably marching upward. Litigation and rural-urban water conflicts are likely to intensify throughout the West and Midwest.