The “D” Word: Drought

If and when drought worsens again, what will Texas do? From new river-flow models to better native-grass mixes, UT scientists, engineers, and alumni are on the front lines.

No Texan likes to say the word, but by the end of last summer drought was writ large across the state. Dry creeks. Devastated crops. Dead livestock. Dwindling reservoirs. Wholesale destruction of trees—half a billion of them—many ripped through by wildfire.

In the hundred-odd years since scientists have kept track, Texas had never suffered a season as hot and dry as the summer of 2011. “Lots of people were having trouble getting by,” recalls David Tucker, a ranch hand in Garfield, Texas. “The crops didn’t make so we didn’t have to harvest them. It slows everything down.”

Several times, Tucker had to rescue cows mired in the muddy bottoms of dried-out stock tanks. More than once he arrived too late. “They’d just wander out and get stuck, thinking there was a drink of water in there, because that’s where they used to drink,” Tucker says. “They couldn’t get out, couldn’t get water, couldn’t get feed. They fight and it drains all their energy. I think we lost three or four. We were lucky we didn’t lose any more than that.”

Dwight Lindsley, a retired state employee in Bastrop, suffered a much more personal loss: his home. He and his wife, Margie, were visiting Houston when the wildfires blew in. By the time they made it back, their house was already destroyed. “It was just devastating,” Lindsley says. “Everything was ash, burned rocks.

“We had a little cat, two years old, who had developed a real personality, and I tell you, that is the thing I miss the most,” Lindsley says. “We had all kinds of Bibles—German, Swedish, family Bibles with family histories in them like people used to do. We could track our family back generations. And Margie was really into that. All of her resource materials went. All of her records went. I think she misses that as much as anything.”

Lindsley and Tucker’s stories offer just a small glimpse of last summer’s widespread pain. This year, a wet spring has helped, but the situation remains precarious. Many water-storage systems, particularly in West Texas, remain at or near historic lows. Meanwhile, the state’s population, and thus its water consumption, continues to boom. Even if rains save us this time, we can no longer avoid facing up to the “D word”—drought.

A variety of political and scientific challenges loom. The accuracy of our water-related data-collection systems may become a matter of survival for vulnerable towns and cities. Our water agency managers may soon be called upon to make decisions under great public scrutiny limiting public and private access to water stored in reservoirs. Our very idea of what it means to build and take part in sustainable communities in Texas may have to be revised.

Fortunately, The University of Texas stands prepared with the training, resources, and commitment to tackle these problems. In fact, UT scientists and alumni are already leading the way, with quiet but admirable success so far. They pulled together recently to hold UT’s first Water Forum, pooling their knowledge about what alumni, faculty, and staff are doing in the face of drought. The collective research and tools gathered were impressive. This is what they’re doing about the “D word.”

Talking About the Problem

David Maidment of the Cockrell School of Engineering is no stranger to extraordinary drought. He visited Corpus Christi in 1984, when a drought pushed the city within months of exhausting its water supply. The city went so far as to enter into an agreement to bring water from a nearby watershed through natural gas pipelines. “Citizens lost confidence in their elected leaders,” Maidment said in a recent speech. “Elected leaders lost confidence in their technical advisors. Young engineers lost confidence in older engineers. I could see an unraveling of the social fabric of the city.”

If drought conditions worsen, Maidment says, he could easily envision similar conditions developing in entire regions of the state. “The situation in Corpus Christi was pretty scary,” he says. “We could be facing something similar coming up here.” February projections from the Lower Colorado River Authority showed the Highland Lakes, which store water for Austin, reaching historic lows by August 1. On the Upper Colorado, the E.V. Spence Reservoir near San Angelo has been effectively empty for months.

Maidment calls for UT to be prepared to serve as a reserve of reliable data and sober decision-making should panic spread in the face of extraordinary drought. “We want relevant and important information to be available through the Web and to have it synthesized so that people can understand it,” he says. “We want people to be able to make rational decisions and not have to go on fear or speculation. It’s up to us to hold the social fabric of the state together.”

An important first step in this process took place in mid-February, when various stakeholders, including state agency representatives, local water managers, and scientists, gathered on the Forty Acres for UT’s first-ever Water Forum, hosted by the Center for Integrated Earth System Science. Maidment and Jackson School of Geosciences professor Zong-Liang Yang, a climate expert, moderated the forum.

“Often academic research is happening in isolation from what people need on the ground,” says UT professor Jay Banner, a presenter at the Water Forum. “There’s great potential for bringing those people together and having greater dialogue, so water resource managers can explain what their needs are and researchers can gear their research towards greater application.”

The Water Forum did have a shortcoming, Maidment conceded: the absence of the high-tech industry. “We know all the agency people, but we don’t know the high-tech people because we haven’t worked with them in the past,” Maidment says. He hopes that UT facilities and supercomputers will attract private investment in water research, planning, and conservation tools. As Maidment puts it, “This could be an opportunity for them to develop new technologies—what starts here changes the world, so to speak.”

Sharing the Data

To open the Water Forum, state agency representatives and local water managers presented their ongoing efforts to manage drought. Each presentation concluded with a list of proposed research directions. They amount to messages from the trenches of the battle against drought, requesting reinforcements from UT scientists in the form of new data and technologies.

In the afternoon, UT scientists presented research relevant to drought management. Happily, several of these presentations addressed needs directly noted by water managers in the morning. One oft-repeated request was for better knowledge of how much water is held in Texas rivers, lakes, and aquifers at any given time. Professor Byron Tapley revealed a new method of measuring precisely such data from space. Tapley’s project, a NASA collaboration called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, employs two satellites flying one behind the other in identical orbits to detect mass variations over huge areas. When the satellites detect a decrease in mass, that means the water table has fallen.

Along similar lines, postdoctoral fellow Cédric David unveiled RAPID, or Routing Application for Parallel computatIon Discharge, an exciting new tool for modeling flow in Texas rivers in near-real time. RAPID brings river systems to life on the computer screen, representing flows with blue lines of varying thickness that change according to rainfall or drought conditions. “Everyone swooned,” Maidment says of David’s presentation. David and his collaborators have made the source code for RAPID available online.

Banner, who works in the Jackson School of Geosciences, presented elements of his research on Texas climate history. “The past is prologue,” Banner says. “If we have a better feel for how long and extended these droughts can be, then water resource managers have a better feel for how much water they need to have in reserve.”

According to Banner’s research, which analyzes the rings of millennia-old bald cypress trees, Texas has experienced many droughts over the past thousand years that far exceeded the record 1950s drought. Almost the entire 13th century in Texas was spent in drought conditions. Recently, Banner has been developing a new method for peering back even further into the climate record using ancient cave drippings crystallized in stalactites and stalagmites.

“One thing to keep in mind is that when we go back in the record we go beyond any anthropogenic effect on the climate,” Banner notes. “Whatever your opinion on climate change and the role that man plays in it, that becomes almost irrelevant. If we experienced these things in the past, we have to be concerned now as we look to the future for the presence of those forcing mechanisms, as well as new factors like greenhouse gas.”

Developing Resources

And what about the future? By late winter, UT climate scientists were seeing a higher-than-average risk of another hot, dry summer like that of 2011. This prediction is based on complex factors like ocean currents and winds blowing in from West Texas. Yang and Rong Fu of the Jackson School have made significant advances in modeling Texas’s future climate, but they can still speak only in terms of probabilities.

One thing, however, is certain: the growing population of Texas will stretch current water resources to their limits in the coming years, regardless of the weather. Over the past 15 years alone, Texas grew by more than 60 percent, and the growth is expected to continue. “As we look into the future, we’re looking at a projected doubling of our population in the next generation,” Banner says. “We have to ask ourselves, where are all these new people going to get their water from?”

Donald Gertson, who farms rice around Lissie, Texas, saw no ill effect on last year’s crop from the drought. That’s because he relies on irrigation from the Colorado River, not rain, to water his land. This year is a different story. With water levels in the Highland Lakes near historic lows, the Lower Colorado River Authority cut off all 2012 water deliveries to downstream agriculture. Gertson’s multi-family partnership usually plants 3,000 acres. This year he’ll plant closer to 1,000.

“The main struggle is going to be with regard to all of the businesses that make their living off of selling products to rice farmers and handling the raw product,” Gertson says. “Feed sales, equipment repair and sales, down to the local hardware stores, anyone who sells anything to rice farmers is gonna be hurt by this. There are probably a couple of rice drying and storage facilities that will have to shut their doors this year and potentially will not be able to reopen.”

Becky Motal, BA ’72, JD ’75, MBA ’90, heads the LCRA and made the call to cut off deliveries to downstream agriculture this year. “That’s the first time that’s happened in 70-some years,” Motal says. “The reason we did that was so we could stay above 600,000 acre-feet of water in storage, so we don’t have to declare a drought worse than the drought of record and so we don’t have to curtail customers like the city of Austin or the nuclear plant downstream.”

Motal recognizes that the LCRA’s infrastructure was built for a smaller Austin—the population when the Highland Lakes were built was about 10 percent of today’s—and potentially, in light of Banner’s research, for an insufficiently conservative assessment of the risk of drought. Motal has committed the LCRA to developing 100,000 acre-feet of new water supplies. Unfortunately, permitting delays make new in-channel reservoirs like Lake Travis an unlikely savior. Motal is considering nearer-term solutions like off-channel reservoirs, desalinization plants, and conjunctive use of groundwater.

If and when hot, dry weather returns and Central Texas enters into a drought worse than the drought of record, Motal will be required to cut water deliveries to major customers like the City of Austin by at least 20 percent. These curtailments—and the brown lawns, agricultural devastation, and possible rolling blackouts associated with them—would shock many. Motal sees it as an unfortunate wake-up call to the need to invest in new water resources.

“People have yet to understand that water is very precious and underpriced,” she says “Think about what you pay for a bottle of water, but you can get a whole acre-foot [over 325,000 gallons] of water for $150. We need to educate people on how to develop new supplies of water. Texas is an arid state. We take so much for granted when we can just turn our tap on.”

Decreasing Consumption

Though the prospect of mandatory curtailments is real, Motal stresses that Austin’s short-term water supply is secure. “There’s still plenty of water, enough water to meet all of our firm demands,” she says. “We ask residents to conserve. I live in Austin and I’ve been conserving and my yard is brown.”

Here, too, UT leads by example. Last year, Landscape Services undertook a major overhaul of its irrigation systems, replacing nozzles and installing a computerized Evapotranspiration system for watering. Now, says John Burns, manager of Landscape Services, “If we have a rain event, we have sensors that tell our system not to water. We can make adjustments globally for our whole system from one computer, versus going out spending hours going to all 102 controllers. It gives us a lot of flexibility to operate the system more efficiently.” The renovations should save 49 million gallons of water per year on the main campus alone.

Lawn irrigation is probably the single biggest use of water from LCRA reservoirs, according to Motal. In a more water-conscious Texas, every homeowner and gardener can make a difference. The Lady Bird Johnson Texas Wildflower Center, administered by UT, has become a laboratory for developing aesthetically pleasing solutions to the landscaping problems posed by water shortages. Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the center’s horticulture director, suggests watering at night and, most importantly, inspecting irrigation systems regularly to check for leaks and sprays. Both she and Burns suggest gardening with native and adaptive plants. Gardeners who want to take a big step toward sustainability might even try rainwater harvesting.

“I’m not totally opposed to lawns,” DeLong-Amaya adds, “but if you have a St. Augustine lawn, consider replacing it with shrubs or drought-resistant plants that don’t need as much maintenance. Or consider a more drought-resistant lawn.” Mark Simmons, her colleague at the center, has developed a native grass mix called Habiturf, which improves on earlier attempts at native Texas lawn mixes by providing a denser, more uniform look and a stronger resistance to weeds. Interested homeowners can see Habiturf in an impressive demonstration garden at the Wildflower Center in southwest Austin.

The drought-fighting efforts of UT’s Landscape Services and ordinary homeowners may seem rudimentary compared to the monumental responsibilities of water managers like Motal and the supercomputer-aided research of UT engineers and scientists. However, over and over again, UT experts stress the importance of sustainability as the cornerstone of any strategy for safeguarding Texas from the most destructive effects of drought. In a sense, it’s the biggest job of all.

In a worst-case scenario, as Maidment witnessed in 1984, drought can threaten to tear a society apart. But it can also unite scientists, public servants, and ordinary people in a common purpose, each with his or her own “D word” job to do. Whether or not Texas ever reaches that precipice, UT is helping prepare.

Photos by Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman.


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