What Did the Texas Drought Do?

Friday, February 15, 2013
Room 302 (Hynes Convention Center)
John Nielsen-Gammon , Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
The latest drought in Texas began in October 2010 and continues as of September 2012.  Its first year was the most intense single-year drought since the beginning of statewide weather records in the 1890s.  Record lack of precipitation combined with record heat to produce devastating impacts on agriculture, large wildfires, and isolated water supply emergencies.  Estimated one-year agricultural losses to major crops alone were $7.6B, and wildfires cost an additional $1.5B. 

The lack of rainfall does not appear to be part of a long-term trend.  Indeed, statewide rainfall has increased by 10%-15% over the past century.  There is also no scientific consensus regarding whether the primary trigger for Texas drought, La Niña, is increasing or decreasing in frequency or intensity.  However, drought also involves temperatures, and the long-term global temperature increase contributed to the record heat of the summer of 2011, increasing agricultural stress while decreasing surface water supply.  Indeed, long-term predictions of increased drought frequency for the south-central and southwest United States are primarily driven by increased temperatures rather than decreased precipitation.

The second year of drought has brought substantial improvements in conditions to eastern Texas, but as of this writing (Sept. 2012) over three-quarters of the state remains in drought and 5% is classified as experiencing exceptional drought.  The long-term outlook calls for a neutral or El Niño winter to be followed by another La Niña event, so depending on what happens with winter and spring rains Texas may be in the middle of a drought as severe as the drought of record in the 1950s.

As a result of the drought, there is a strong push in Texas for ensuring an adequate statewide water supply for the present and future.  The intense drought of 2011 has raised awareness that adequate and reliable water are essential for long-term economic development and prosperity.  The statewide Water Plan calls for $53B in spending for new infrastructure, but those plans generally do not include payment mechanisms.  For the first time in several decades, Texas will be dealing with the issue of how to pay for major water infrastructure needs, which may in turn initiate a debate about the balance to be struck between increasing the water supply (infrastructure) and decreasing the water demand (conservation).

The importance of including climate change as a factor in planning for future water supply is becoming more widely recognized.