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To Tackle Drought, Can Lawmakers Do More Than Pray for Rain?

The Texas drought is already a significant natural disaster. What can the government do to help those who are hit hardest?

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The Texas drought has escalated into a significant natural disaster. Around the Panhandle, normally one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the state, acres of dry dirt fill would-be croplands. Lakes' levels are falling statewide. Cities are tightening water restrictions, amid the driest October-through-June stretch in Texas history. 

So what can the government do to help those who are hit hardest?

Not much, at the state level, experts say.

Droughts are tricky to manage. Their effects vary significantly from place to place, so local authorities generally assume primary responsibility for drought management. Different counties or cities not only get different amounts of precipitation, but they also may draw from different sources of water, below the ground or in reservoirs or rivers.

Droughts often do not get the attention accorded to other natural disasters. They are slower-moving and lack the drama of, say, a hurricane, earthquake or a tornado. Wildfires, exacerbated by drought, are also more spectacular. Gov. Rick Perry visited West Texas fire devastation in April.

Currently Perry has "no tours ... scheduled at this point" of drought-stricken areas, according to Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the governor. Perry's most publicized drought move was to call for prayers for rain over the Easter weekend. Frazier says that the governor is "always being briefed" on the latest on the drought situation.

The federal government usually takes the lead on disaster aid, after a request from the state, and this drought is no exception. Last month the Department of Agriculture declared nearly all Texas counties disaster areas so that farmers and ranchers statewide can apply for low-interest loans for relief. The federal government has also relaxed some requirements of the Conservation Reserve Program, a system designed to prevent another Dust Bowl, to make it possible for farmers with land in the program to use their fields to make hay (which is in short supply). The feds have also provided some emergency relief for wildfires, including for small businesses.

The state takes on some tasks. A group called the Texas Drought Preparedness Council, consisting of multiple state agencies, meets regularly under the auspices of the Department of Public Safety and tries to improve drought-response coordination. It issues a monthly report on conditions. The next meeting is Thursday afternoon.

The Texas Department of Agriculture operates a "hay hotline," which helps ranchers find hay in their area. It is also administering a fund, consisting of donations from private individuals or companies, to help ranchers rebuild their fences after the wildfires.

And, of course, the state takes the lead in fighting wildfires, via the Texas Forest Service. "The state response to the fires has been fairly comprehensive," says state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo.

But most of the power for drought response resides with local and regional authorities, such as groundwater groups that manage particular aquifers or cities. Counties also are responsible for issuing burn bans.

"In a practical sense, drought plans are implemented at a local level," says Chris Brown, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council and a former San Antonio water expert. In Texas, he says, water is rarely moved around the state — in contrast to California, where much of the state relies on the Sierra Nevada mountains for its water supply and an aqueduct system allows for statewide transfers of water.

Partly because of the relative powerlessness of the state, the consensus of political observers is that the drought is unlikely to cause a political problem for Perry, even if he campaigns around the country while Texas continues to dry out. "This drought would be going on whether he was in Texas or Hong Kong," Seliger says. "That's not the point."

Historically, however, during the worst drought in recorded Texas history — the 1950s — the governor, Allan Shivers, did take a prominent role in working to get more aid flowing to stricken areas. 

"I think you can be assured that we are going to do everything we can on the state level," Shivers said, speaking about the drought to county judges in 1954. A few weeks later, Shivers joined governors of four other Southwestern states in journeying to Washington to ask President Eisenhower (who had convened the conference) for drought aid, including more loans for farmers and small businesses, and firmer price supports for struggling farmers. (Interestingly, Shivers also sought to build more roads and bridges at the time in drought-stricken areas, to create more jobs.)

Some climatologists worry that the current drought cycle could rival that of the 1950s. Still, however, the human impact back then was greater. People were poorer in the 1950s, and far more lived in rural Texas and depended solely on the land.

The 1950s drought also spurred the Texas Legislature to create the Texas Water Development Board, in 1957. Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, says that other droughts have spurred state action too. For example, he says, the current regional planning process put in place by the Legislature in 1997 was partly in response to a drought the previous year.

Kramer and other environmentalists wish that this drought would spur stronger conservation measures.  In many cities conservation remains voluntary — such as Amarillo, which (as of late June) had had its lowest rainfall totals for the year to date in recorded history.

"Conservation needs to be taken much more seriously," says Mary Kelly, who runs an Austin environmental consulting firm called Parula.

Kramer of the Sierra Club wishes drought plans would take account of the meteorological forecast as well as the current status of water supplies. The near-term forecast is bleak through at least early fall, and now meteorologists are suggesting La Niña, a Pacific current that is a major cause of this drought, could return in the fall. With no relief in sight, Kramer says, watering restrictions in Austin should already be cut to one day a week (residents can currently water two days a week).

At the end of the day, however, there is one overarching solution: the weather.

"Really what everyone's doing," says Carmen Fenton, a spokeswoman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, "is praying for rain."

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