Even after some welcome fall rains, as of January 3, 2012, nearly 67 percent of the state was still in an “extreme” or “exceptional” drought — the two most severe categories of a classification system maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.3
- In early November, nearly 1,000 of Texas’ 4,700 public water systems had imposed voluntary or mandatory water restrictions;
- 55 prohibited all outside watering; and
- 23 believed they were within 180 days of running out of water completely.4
West Texas Rainfall Comparisons
|West Texas Cities||2011 Precipitation as of 12/15/11||Comparison Cities||Average Annual Precipitation*|
|Del Rio||9.6"||Tehran, Iran||9.1"|
|El Paso||4.9"||Baghdad, Iraq||4.8"|
|Midland/Odessa||4.6"||Kuwait City, Kuwait||4.6"|
* Average annual precipitation for the years 1961 through 1990.
Sources: World Weather Information Service and National Weather Service Southern Regional Headquarters.
Even in “normal” years, Texas rainfall varies widely by region, growing steadily drier from east to west (Exhibit 3).
In early November, nearly
1,000 of Texas’ 4,700
public water systems
had imposed voluntary
State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, says the current drought is due largely to the coincidence of three patterns that can bring dry weather to Texas:
- a long-term cycle of Atlantic Ocean temperature variation that climatologists call the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, which turned warm in the mid-1990s;
- a similar long-term cycle in the Pacific, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which began cooling the tropical Pacific in 2009; and
- a shorter cycle, the El Niño/La Niña Southern Oscillation or ENSO. The current La Niña pattern, which also brings cooler conditions to the tropical Pacific, developed in mid-2010.5
According to Nielsen-Gammon, “The last time [these] cycles lined up was in the 1950s and early 1960s, when we had not just the seven- to 10-year drought of the 1950s, but also a couple of drought years in the early 1960s.”6
Rainfall by Selected Texas Cities, January-October 2011
|City||Average Annual Rainfall||2011 Rainfall as of 11/1/11||Percent of Average as OF 11/1/11|
Source: National Weather Service Southern Regional Headquarters.
of Texas power generation — about
16% of ERCOT’s total power
resources — depend on cooling water from sources at historically
Extended drought may affect the price and availability of electrical power in Texas, due both to the demand for summer air conditioning and the fact that most power plants use large amounts of water for cooling.
On December 1, 2011, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) warned that another hot, dry summer could push the state’s power reserves below its minimum target next year.7
More than 11,000 megawatts of Texas power generation — about 16 percent of ERCOT’s total power resources — rely on cooling water from sources at historically low levels. If Texas does not receive “significant” rainfall by May, more than 3,000 megawatts of this capacity could be unavailable due to a lack of water for cooling.8
The 2011 Drought’s Toll
In August 2011, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimated Texas’ direct agricultural losses from the year’s drought at $5.2 Billion
That included —
- Hay production:
… in addition to losses from fruit and vegetable producers, horticultural and nursery crops and other grain and row crops.15
A December 2012 economic analysis by BBVA Compass Bank found that indirect losses to Texas agriculture due to the drought could add another $3.5 billion to the toll.16
Infrastructure: Cracked Pavement, Broken Pipes
The 2011 drought caused considerable damage to infrastructure. Much of Texas is covered in clay-rich soils that swell when wet and shrink when soil moisture evaporates. That shrinkage can cause the soil to buckle, damaging foundations, roads and water and sewer lines.
Williamson County had around 100 road and bridge employees working full-time to fix pavement cracks in the summer.22 Dallas closed more than two dozen athletic fields due to cracks in the soil up to two feet deep.23
The city of Austin repaired 103 leaking pipes in the last week of July alone. In July, Fort Worth reported more than 200 breaks in its water mains, including 20 discovered on a single day.24 At the end of August, Houston had 1,033 active leaks in its water system.25
Read “Texans on the Fire Line” – Fiscal Notes - October 2011
2011: The Wildfire Year
Drought and unprecedented heat made 2011 the worst year for wildfires in Texas history. From Nov. 15, 2010 through Sept. 29, 2011, Texas saw 23,835 fires that burned more than 3.8 million acres and destroyed 2,763 Texas homes.21
What happens when a city runs out of water?
We may find out soon. Robert Lee, a small town in Coke County just north of San Angelo, relies on Lake E.V. Spence for its water. The reservoir is all but gone — only 0.42 percent full as of December 27, 2011.17 Families that once consumed 20,000 gallons per month now are getting by with 3,000 to 4,000 gallons, 80 percent less.18
According to Robert Lee Mayor John Jacobs, the city recently received a loan and grant combination for $1.2 million from TWDB that will allow it to build 12.2-mile pipeline to the water treatment plant of neighboring Bronte, Texas, which receives some water from Oak Creek Reservoir (which is only 38 percent full). The pipeline may take about four months to construct; Jacobs hopes that Robert Lee – population 1171 – can hold out until then.19