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November 2009

Bring the Rain… Please

Is Texas’ worst drought in 50 years ending?

After two dry years, 2007 proved to be one of the wettest on record, bringing welcome relief throughout the state.

By Clint Shields

July 2007
[Pedernales River at flood stage]

Summer 2009 was hot and dry even for a state where “hot,” “dry” and “summer” generally work as a single phrase. It was more than ordinarily miserable, though, since it continued the worst drought Texas has seen in half a century.

But with the arrival of fall, there are some signs that the drought is breaking – and not a moment too soon.

In 2008, drought conditions returned, particularly in South-Central Texas.

“I don’t think anyone sees an actual clear end to it, but it’s looking better,” says Bob Rose, chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). “Climate experts are saying we’re looking at a wetter pattern for the fall and winter.”

September 2008
[Pedernales River at near-normal levels]

A Wet Welcome?

The potential savior of Texas’ crops and lawns is El Niño, a periodic weather pattern that warms the tropical waters of the Pacific. El Niño tends to bring above-average rainfall to Texas in the fall and winter months, Rose says, and its return is influencing the state’s weather.

The Guadalupe River flowed at about 5 to 10 percent of its normal levels in summer 2009.

Following a bone-dry winter, the drought worsened in 2009, spreading to most of the state’s southern half.

More rainfall could help this drought end, but with slow and steady rains rather than gully-washers.

“I think we’re likely to come out of [the drought] slowly, rather than it ending suddenly,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, a Texas A&M University professor and Texas’ state climatologist.

January 2009
[Pedernales River at drought levels]

Farmers and ranchers have suffered mightily the past two years. Agricultural losses could top $4.1 billion by year’s end, with livestock losses alone exceeding $860 million, including feed costs. The hardest-hit areas, South and Central Texas, have experienced dry times not seen since the legendary drought of the 1950s. Central Texas, Rose says, had a rainfall deficit of more than 31 inches from September 2007 to October 2009.

Yet it could have been worse.

Early in 2007, most of the area that has felt the brunt of the current drought received more than enough rain. Had it not been for that soaking, this drought might have snapped the 1950s record.

There are some signs that the drought is breaking – and not a moment
too soon.

“This one has been extreme on a one- to two-year time frame,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “If not for those rains in 2007, we’d have easily seen five years of drought.”

Plans for the Parched

Texas’ drought preparations appear to be increasingly effective. Better planning and tighter regulation have certainly helped communities cope, and the experience of this drought will help further refine their responses in the future.

“We understand more about the effects of drought now, and cities and counties are more responsive,” says the LCRA’s Rose. “That helps, in that we don’t see communities go completely dry.”

As of Sept. 1, 316 of almost 4,700 Texas community water systems had water-use restrictions in place.

The drought hit hard in Kerrville, where the Guadalupe River flows through downtown. Due to the drought, it flowed at about 5 to 10 percent of its normal levels in summer 2009, prompting the city to implement tight water restrictions.

“Normally, we treat up to 6 million gallons a day from the river,” says Charlie Hastings, Kerrville’s director of public works. “But over the last 13 months, we have been curtailed down to 1 million gallons a day.

“We’re making up the difference with native ground water from wells and surface water that has been stored in the aquifer,” he says. “We’ve been storing treated surface water in our aquifer for a decade so that we could recover it during a drought. We have stored 770 million gallons and retrieved about 300 million gallons this year.”

Water Restrictions

In August 2009, Kerrville enacted its “stage-three” water restrictions, which prohibit the use of automatic irrigation or sprinkler systems. Under stage three, watering can be done only by hand with a hose equipped with an attached shut-off device.

Hastings says that city officials under- stand the frustration of homeowners watching their lawns wither.

“The summer was hard on everyone,” he says. “The heat was so intense and the air and ground so dry that people were easily agitated and yards were difficult to maintain. Nobody wants to lose the investment of a well-maintained yard, and months with little or no rain create anxiety for everyone.”

But he credits the people of Kerrville for enduring and paying a “moderate” price of inconvenience to ensure a sustain- able water supply. And unintended benefits came about as well.

“As people had to get out and water by hand, as was the norm years ago, they learned to be neighbors again,” Hastings says.

The city of Abilene received more rain than much of the state, but does its part to ensure that water is there when the tap is turned.

“We do year-round water management,” says Wayne Lisenbee, assistant director of the city’s water utilities department. “There is never a time when residents are free to water when and how they want to.”

By curtailing use in what Lisenbee calls the city’s water management stage, there was no need to move to the city’s stage one, which restricts use even more. The city has not had to enforce stage-one restrictions since early 2005.

The Price to Play

Despite the drought, enough rain made its way to Lake Belton, near Temple, to give water enthusiasts plenty of water to enjoy. The scene was a far cry from Lake Travis, just 70 miles away and less than 40 percent full. Lake-going crowds shifted their focus to where the water was, coming from the Austin and Houston areas to Bell County.

“We saw almost 50 percent of our traffic come from the Austin and Georgetown area, with a lot from Houston, too,” says Rob Reese, president of Aquaduc Boat Rentals on Lake Belton. Reese moved his business from New Mexico to Texas in 2006. With the drought and the sagging economy, Reese was unsure which direction business would take during the summer. Still, he added to his rental fleet – and the move paid off.

“We saw a near 20 percent increase in rentals and probably could have supported as many as five more rentals each weekend,” Reese says.

Reese also has seen a shift in boat ownership that he attributes in part to the economy.

“We’ve found that folks are selling their boats, but they still want to get out on the water, so they rent,” he says. “They get rid of the $300 to $400 a month they spend owning their own boat and rent instead. It’s worked out for us.” FN

The Texas Water Development Board keeps updated drought tips and information on its Web site.

Nursing Along

Sales at nursery and garden centers rose steadily through the recent drought period before dipping by about 5 percent in 2009’s first quarter. Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon says he doubts there has been a major shift in Texans’ gardening choices, such as choosing more water-friendly native plants.

“Even with a xeriscaped yard, you have to get plants established and for that, you need more favorable conditions,” he says. “It’s not the type of thing you do in the middle of a summer.”

Outdoor power equipment sales have suffered, however, dropping by 10 percent in 2008 and by 15 percent more in 2009’s first quarter.

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