Let them drink Lone Star

If you plan to spend the rest of your life in Texas, plan to do it without water.

Gov. Rick Perry acknowledged the need to invest in water resource management in his State of the State speech last week.

But Perry justified his point by saying, “Whenever we’re recruiting a business seeking to relocate or expand, a chief concern of theirs is ensuring there are adequate water, power and transportation systems for their needs.”

Water scarcity is not just a concern for profitable business development; it’s a present and immediate threat to the survival of Texas as we know it.

The Texas Water Development Board, a state agency, estimates that the population of Texas, currently at around 26 million, will grow to more than 46 million by the year 2060. Much of that growth will be concentrated in already overtaxed cities and regions like the Rio Grande Valley — the population of which the TWDB projects will nearly triple in the next 50 years. That corresponds to an accordingly large increase in demand for water, especially in urban areas. In that same period, according to the TWDB’s 2012 State Water Plan, the state’s existing water supply is expected to decrease by about 10 percent, mostly due to depletion of the state’s aquifers. The Plan saves readers — and lawmakers — the trouble of subtracting two very large numbers and estimates that the state’s total unmet water needs in 2060 will amount to 2,452,764 acre-feet per year. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to the depth of one foot, or about 325,851 gallons.

The Plan’s stated goal is “to ensure that our state’s cities, rural communities, farms, ranches, businesses and industries will have enough water to meet their needs” during a drought similar to that of 1950, referred to by policymakers as the “drought of record.” But even its sobering statistics might be an overly optimistic projection.

According to a recent study of tree rings in West and Central Texas led by the director of UT’s Environmental Science Institute, Jay Banner, droughts like that of 1950 have been regular occurrences in Texas’ history. Even more alarmingly, those droughts have been periodically dwarfed by far more severe “megadroughts” lasting decades or more. These massive climatic events occur in Texas about once every two or three hundred years, most recently at the turn of the 18th century.

And that predated global warming. The ESI study cites projections of “up to four times the global average warming that occurred over the 20th century” in the Western United States, as well as reports that “the Southwest is likely to experience reduced precipitation in addition to higher temperatures.” The study predicts that after 2040, droughts equal to or greater than that of 1950 will happen at least once a decade.

The good part is that the kind of droughts that the State Water Plan views as the worst-case scenario will not just be the norm, they’ll be a relatively positive outcome. The alternative is the kind of multi-decade megadrought that the ESI study says Texas can expect during this century.

Compounding the problem, the Rio Grande and other rivers, which are fed by rainfall rather than snowmelt, will not be able to sustain either municipal populations or agricultural irrigation in the droughts forecasted for our future. The aforementioned population growth will put Texas in a situation reminiscent of the moment in Wile E. Coyote cartoons when the titular canine runs off a cliff and hangs in midair before gulping and looking down.

To their credit, state leaders have done something. The Alliance for Water Efficiency ranks Texas, along with California, first in the country for water conservation and efficiency. And following another severe drought in 2011, Representatives Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) and Allan Ritter (R-Nederland) have recently filed bills that would allocate up to $2 billion from the Legislature’s ironically-named “Rainy Day Fund” to fund some of the TWDB’s recommendations. Larson has also filed a bill that would provide a sales tax incentive for people to buy water-saving appliances over the Memorial Day weekend. These are admirable efforts, but they pale in comparison to the true scope of the problem. Far, far more is needed from residents, businesses and every level of government to prepare for the coming crisis.

The economic, social and life-and-death consequences of multi-year droughts on the scale of those the ESI study predicts are unfathomable. But one thing is certain: 50 years from now, we’ll have a lot more to worry about than how attractive our state is to big business.