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Texas Drought Fears Intensify

By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E reporter
1/2/2013 3:10:11 PM

HOUSTON -- Texas authorities are growing concerned that the state will suffer a recurrence of severe drought in 2013 and are beginning to order conservation efforts in advance.

A wet summer brought much-needed relief to parts of the state that dried up in 2011, when state climatologists said Texas recorded its worst single year of drought in a decade. That event hit beef producers hard, wrecked the state's rice crop and forced municipalities to institute restrictions on water use by the end of that summer.

Photo by CraneStation

In contrast, the past year was far wetter -- with heavy spring and early summer rains either markedly alleviating drought conditions or pulling parts of Texas out of drought completely, especially the eastern third of the state and the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.

But Texas ended 2012 on a dry note, with water authorities reporting less recharge to reservoirs and surface water supplies in the fall and winter than would otherwise be considered normal. The agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and regional water boards, now fear dry conditions will continue into this summer.

In a recent report, Texas state climatologist and Texas A&M University professor John Nielsen-Gammon called the 2012 autumn "the driest since 1950." He expressed alarm at the speed with which dry conditions spread across Texas.

A state drought map updated over the Christmas holiday season shows that only a small region of east Texas and part of the Rio Grande Valley are not currently experiencing some drought conditions. East Texas is showing moderate to severe drought, while conditions are seen as acute or worsening in the Panhandle region and the extreme south of the state.

The heavily populated central Texas region is growing drier, too, prompting the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin to request permission to introduce emergency drought relief measures this year. It's the second year in a row that LCRA requested permission to deviate from its usual allocations of reservoir water between Austin metro residents and regional agricultural consumers.

"The region's water supply reservoirs remain low because of the prolonged drought gripping central Texas," LCRA officials aid. "Because of the situation, LCRA's Board of Directors has asked the state for permission to send less Highland Lakes water to the farmers in 2013 than required by the state-approved Water Management Plan."

'Conserve this precious resource'

LCRA is projecting water levels at lakes Travis and Buchanan to again reach near-historic low levels by June this year should current weather patterns continue. Officials there said fall rains helped somewhat, but the ground was so dry by the time rain came that much of the water was lost to downstream runoff.

Data posted on TCEQ's website show that around 1,000 public water systems throughout the state are on some type of restricted usage plan. Nevertheless, the agency is asking all water systems and the general public to begin taking steps to conserve water now, and to continue limited use as Texas readies for what could become another dry summer.

Mandatory water restrictions are also beginning to be rolled out, despite TCEQ having earlier rescinded some water use restrictions at the close of the summer.

Last month, TCEQ informed some water rights holders on the Brazos River Basin that they could be hit with suspensions of some diversions unless immediate steps were taken to conserve water. Municipalities in that region were also ordered to begin implementing their drought contingency plans.

Water users in the basin have also been asked to fill out questionnaires on how they use water and how much. Power companies using water for their generation systems have also been asked to take whatever measures they can to lower their consumption.

Officials worry that the dry conditions beginning to creep over much of the state will only worsen in the months to come.

"Drought conditions are worsening and no substantial relief is projected," TCEQ officials said in their notice to Brazos River Basin water users. "Forecasts for early 2013 include below normal rainfall and above normal temperatures."

"The TCEQ encourages all Texans to conserve this precious resource," the agency said in a release.

Drought experts at Texas A&M say late-year dry conditions across the state have come as a surprise. Pacific Ocean temperatures and weather patterns are neutral, they said, favoring neither a wet nor drier winter.

About 80 percent of the state is experiencing some kind of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, including the normally wet Houston area.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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