Proposed constitutional amendment aims to diminish effects of drought

Amanda Voeller

In the midst of one of the worst droughts in Texas history, professors’ research on water is becoming more relevant to students who will have an opportunity in November to vote on a Texas constitutional amendment increasing water
project funding.

For the past three years, many regions in Texas have experienced drought conditions. Currently, Lakes Travis and Buchanan are 32 and 34 percent full respectively, according to the Lower
Colorado River Authority. These levels determine Austin Water Utility’s water restrictions, which have been at stage two for the majority of the past two years. There is a third stage of restrictions between stage two and emergency restrictions. Stage two water restrictions suggest that people only water their yards one day per week and restaurants not serve water unless a customer requests it.

According to the National Weather Service, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport received 28.42 inches of rain in 2010, but only 16.90 inches in 2011 — about half the yearly average of 32.79 inches. In 2012, the airport received 35.13 inches. 

In November, Texas voters will vote on Proposition 6, a Texas constitutional amendment which, if approved, would finance water projects by allocating $2 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund. Projects would potentially include the construction of new pipelines and reservoirs.

Bridget Scanlon, a hydro-geologist at the Jackson School of Geosciences, said power plants use water for cooling purposes, so the lack of water presents problems for power grids — especially in the summer.

“Because the electricity system is all connected in a grid. When you have a problem at one power plant, it could impact a much larger system because it all is connected,” Scanlon said.

UT officials have reacted to the drought’s effects on electricity systems in innovative ways, said Jason Hill, Austin Water Utility senior public information officer. Earlier this year, the University began using Austin Water Utility’s reclaimed water system — which involves using water that is unsafe to drink — for cooling the electricity towers, Hill said.

Hill said it is important for people to be aware of how their individual actions impact the
water supply.

“At a university the size of UT, you have students that come from all over, and some of those places aren’t really concerned about water — Michigan for instance — so it’s great … For folks to understand the school is in an area right now that’s experiencing a drought, so every little bit helps,”
Hill said.

David Maidment, associate director at UT’s Center for Integrated Earth System Science, said the state has sufficient long-term plans to address the drought conditions, but should work on its short-term plans.

Many organizations in Texas measure water levels, but there is not a centralized source of all the water-related information,
Maidment said.

“We need to manage water like a bank account,” Maidment said. “What comes in, what goes out, what’s the current level … We need a more structured, systematic approach to this.”

Maidment said Texas leaders should learn from the way the Australian government handled its drought in the early 2000s because the two regions have comparable populations.

“[The Australian government now publishes] national water accounts each year that quantify just what the state of the water system is in critical regions of the country, and how it’s changing over time,” Maidment said. “I think we need something like that. They also built an Australian water resource information system to integrate information on water across the country … I think we need those things in Texas too.”

The low moisture levels in the soil are the most concerning part of the drought, Maidment said.

“We’re in a frail situation compared to what we were three years ago,” Maidment said. “The capacity of the state to recover is dependent on how quickly water can get into the soil and get into the groundwater system because that’s where the real deficit is … If you look at the total volume of water that Texas has lost because of drought conditions, [lake water is] only about 10 percent of it. The other 90 percent is in the soil water system and the underground
water system.”