AUSTIN (KXAN) – Researchers at the Environmental Science Institute at the University of Texas believe Texas’ current water plan is not ready for the effects of climate change. They’re concerned that mega-droughts, droughts that can last ten years or more, could be brought on by climate change. The mega-droughts, plus a mixture of rising temperatures, changes in rain patterns and a booming population could lead to a dwindling water supply.
“Water has always been a big deal in Texas. Recent changes in our world have showed us we’re in for some really major changes in the 21st century,” says Jay Banner, Director of the Environmental Science Institute and a professor with the University of Texas’ geology department.
According to researchers, the current water plan is based on the longest drought of the 1900’s. That drought lasted six years. Mega-droughts, which have happened in Texas once every hundred years or so since the 1500’s, can last ten years or more. Scientists have found records of these mega-droughts in trees and caves across the state dating back thousands of years.
John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s climatologist, says that mega-droughts are different than regular droughts. Essentially, we will have more dry years than wet ones, and we will never really recover.
Current climate projections show the dry line that divides the state will slowly creep east over the next century. This means East Texas will begin to look more like West Texas. Rising temperatures will increase evaporation of the water we do have, while changes in storm patterns could lead to less frequent rain and more severe storms. Severe storms have greater runoff and aren’t as effective when refilling aquifers.
The water problem will also be impacted by Texas’ expected population growth. By 2070, the state’s is projected to double in size to 51 million people. Most of these people are expected to live in the urban corridor that runs from the Rio Grande Valley up through Dallas.
This population boom, plus climate change, will drastically impact the state’s water supply. The good news is the new population will bring in more money, which could be used to purchase water. However, Professor Nielsen-Gammon says that a water shortage could drive away industries.
Preparing for this future doesn’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Ranchers, farmers and urban centers will have to alter the water plan in different ways. Professors Banner and Nielsen-Gammon had recommendations, including better water conservation across the state, greater usage of grey water, investing in technology that can clean groundwater and saltwater, and redirecting runoff to aquifers.
“There are opportunities to make changes as long as we realize what we’re up against,” says Professor Banner, “and get on with (the preparations) sooner rather than later.”