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What if There's a Mega-Drought? Comptroller Considers Impact

A report released Wednesday by the Texas comptroller's office looks at the impact of the current drought and other scenarios.

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A 12-page report released Wednesday by the Texas comptroller's office offers a wide-ranging look at the effects of the record drought that is still gripping Texas.

The report, "The Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond," contains few new figures for drought losses but offers graphics that depict the breadth of the problem, which hurt crops, threatens electricity production and forced 55 communities to ban outdoor watering.

"Texas is prone to cycles of drought which makes it important for residents, businesses, and state and local governments to manage water use," Comptroller Susan Combs said in a prepared statement. "Every Texan has a stake in water issues the state faces.”

Despite recent rains, 95 percent of the state remains in drought.

Last year, Texas AgriLife estimated agricultural losses from the drought at $5.2 billion, but the comptroller's office notes that a December analysis by BBVA Compass Bank found that indirect drought losses to agriculture could increase that amount by $3.5 billion. 

The report — which does not discuss climate change — looks at three scenarios for future rainfall patterns. The best is normal rainfall patterns. Under this scenario, "other than occasional disruptions due to broken pipes and mains, when the faucet is turned on there’s plenty of water, no matter what the need," the report states.

The worst scenario is mega-drought, which tree ring patterns suggest has occurred before. Under this scenario, the report states:

  • Texas agriculture would change dramatically and might end in some areas. Drip irrigation and other techniques pioneered in desert areas would become essential.
  • Remaining agriculture might become dependent on “water markets,” in which the rights to draw groundwater are bought and sold.
  • Food prices, particularly beef prices, would increase significantly.
  • Turf grass lawns and all outside watering might be banned.
  • Low-flow water appliances would become mandatory.
  • Wastewater would become quite valuable and would be reclaimed for reuse in irrigation and perhaps treated to make it suitable for human consumption.
  • Desalination of brackish (salty) groundwater and seawater would become common, at first for industrial and agricultural uses and then for drinking water.
  • Utility rates could be expected to skyrocket due to the increased expense of water obtained through desalination or reuse, and the higher costs faced by energy plants that rely on water for cooling.

The report concludes with a look at four Southwestern cities — Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Tucson — that have adopted water-saving strategies such as mandatory xeriscaping or incentives for low-flow toilets.

"Our neighbors in Southwestern states have been forced to develop innovative strategies to combat chronic water shortages — strategies that may become common in Texas as well," the report states.

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