Texas Still in Drought May 2012

Although parts of Texas are now officially out of or nearly out of drought, over 80 percent of the state is still in the three worst categories of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. With several reservoirs at historic lows, the drought is still a top priority for the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) and many other state agencies.

This time last year Texas was beginning to experience the effects of what would turn out to be the most intense one-year drought in the history of our state. Wildfires, agricultural losses, and water shortages started making headlines last spring. A headline from CNN News dated April 18, 2011, read Fires burn across Texas with no end in sight. The drought raged on throughout the summer, contributing to the Bastrop County Complex fire that began on September 4 and was the most destructive wildfire in state history. The 34,000-acre inferno destroyed over 1,600 homes and killed two people. These forest fire statistics (from the Texas Forest Service) demonstrate how devastating the fires were:

2011 fire statistics

  • 30,457 fires
  • 3,993,716 acres burned
  • 3,017 homes destroyed
  • 2,792 other structures destroyed

The dramatic nature of these fires caught the attention of the people of Texas as they were broadcast on local and national news. Equally dramatic was the impact to farmers and ranchers. The intense heat and rainfall deficits resulted in the costliest drought in Texas history. According to Texas AgriLife, these are just a few of the agricultural losses:

2011 Agricultural Losses

  • Livestock $3.23 billion
  • Lost hay production value: $750 million
  • Cotton $2.2 billion
  • Total Texas agricultural losses $7.62 billion

When drought extends over a period of months, the water supply is eventually affected. Many water suppliers around the state watched their water sources dry up under record high evaporation rates and record low rainfall. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported that over 1,000 water suppliers instituted some form of watering restrictions from last summer through March. Many communities are considering the possibility of instituting these restrictions on a permanent basis. Because several water suppliers continue to report a limited supply, they have been requesting emergency funding to access new water sources.

To assist in the relief effort, various state agencies have been activating drought response initiatives. The Texas Department of Agriculture made $5,000,000 in community development block grants available to water suppliers experiencing emergency supply shortages. The TWDB also provided $2,750,000 in financial assistance to the city of Robert Lee to build a pipeline for emergency water supplies.

The Texas Division on Emergency Management (TDEM) has been leading the statewide effort to develop and implement plans to address water shortages. In March, TDEM led a table top scenario discussing actions to be taken if San Angelo were to run out of water. Although it may seem far-fetched to plan for a community the size of San Angelo to face that possibility, the western half of Texas has yet to recover from the drought. Many of its reservoirs remain at or below 20 percent of capacity. The severity of the drought in West Texas poses critical challenges for the state.

Texans are no strangers to drought. Citizens and government together must meet these water supply challenges so that we can ensure the state has the water it needs now and in the future.

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