Drought, from Bad to Worse
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Dr. M. Ray Perryman
The EconomistAugust 17, 2011 | 2,224 views | 1 comment
Drought conditions continue to worsen across the state. Any rainfall has been very spotty, with a lucky few getting wet, but no widespread relief.
The US Drought Monitor currently places virtually all of Texas under abnormally dry conditions, with 94% of the state classified as undergoing either extreme or exceptional drought conditions, and 78% of that falling into the exceptional category. Extreme heat also continues, with many locations adding to record numbers of 100+ degree days.
Total state conservation storage at the end of July stood at 68% of capacity, down 5% from just a month prior and a far cry from the 85% storage level of one year ago. With the state’s water supply dropping by more than a million acre-feet per month, according to the Texas Water Development Board, water rationing is widespread.
Seven reservoirs are at or below 5% full and several are effectively empty. These are normally important sources of drinking water for nearby cities. Adding to the problem, wells across Texas are becoming deeper and harder to access, with aquifer levels dropping rapidly in many areas. Nearly all of the state’s counties are currently under outdoor burn bans.
Crop and livestock issues resulting from this drought could be devastating, potentially doubling the previous record of $4.1 billion occurring in 2006, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. Strong demand for these products, coupled with an already restricted world supply, contribute to the high-dollar losses. With associated multiplier effects, these losses could exceed $20 billion. Moreover, in many instances, it takes years to restore prior yields even when the rains come.
Water conservation efforts across the state have increased as the drought has continued to intensify throughout the summer. For Texas public water systems, 479 have instituted mandatory water restrictions for users, while 285 additional systems have recommended voluntary restrictions on water according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Wildfires have also taken a toll, and the economic impact has been notable. According to the Texas Forest Service, Jasper County lost over $2 million in timber resulting from a single wildfire incident.
The effects of this drought have moved well beyond agricultural industries. For example, Texas’ oil and gas industries are coming under fire for water use for hydraulic fracturing, a method that is often required to access oil and gas sources in shale formations. With community supplies dwindling, citizens are protesting this use of scarce drinking water despite the enormous economic benefits associated with such activity.
The current drought is looking to persist or intensify throughout much of Texas through October, according to the National Weather Service. This likelihood spells more trouble for an area already experiencing the effects of the drought through the loss in agriculture, cattle, oil, and timber. One thought among some is that hurricane season will bring moisture to the state, though, of course, that could involve additional problems if the storms come inland.
I have been involved in the process of long-term planning for drinking water supplies for decades. Adding to the state’s supply is a very expensive undertaking, and the process of permitting and building (not to mention filling) a new reservoir is lengthy. However, as we continue to set new records of “hottest” and “driest,” the importance of these investments in infrastructure is highlighted.
Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group http://www.perrymangroup.com. He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.