Dr. Votteler is the Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Water Journal. Mazur is a senior policy advisor at Texas 2036.
History is learned for the betterment of posterity. Despite this, we’re failing to apply key lessons for how we plan and prepare for drought.
In 1840, immediately after the storms of revolution swept across Texas, the plague of drought followed in their wake. Between the time of our state’s independence as a republic and the Civil War, a lengthy, withering drought wreaked havoc on the fledgling republic and young state. That drought was just one of several devastating droughts that have impacted our state over the past few centuries.
Looking at paleoclimate records, Texas has endured multiple droughts of extraordinary duration and intensity. In addition to the drought of the 1800s, another major drought affected Texas during the early 1700s, when Spanish authorities founded a colonial outpost in San Antonio. While that drought was extraordinarily severe, it was dwarfed in length by the “Southwestern Megadrought” of the 1500s that spanned multiple decades and affected the entire American southwest including Texas.
Since meteorological records began in the late 1800s, our state’s worst known one-year drought occurred in 2011. It was a searing ordeal, marked by record-high temperatures, dwindling water supplies, billions in agricultural losses and widespread wildfires.
The drought that guides much of our state’s water planning, known as the Drought of Record, occurred in the 1950s. It scarred the state, both culturally and economically, and became the basis of our water planning.
Texas’ State Water Plan prepared by the Texas Water Development Board anticipates future water needs if Texas were to endure a repeat of the 1950s drought. The planning process invites regional stakeholders to identify and prioritize water supply projects and conservation strategies that would, theoretically, meet the state’s needs should such a drought reoccur.
Failing to take such steps, as a recent report by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and Texas 2036 vividly demonstrates, invites economic devastation. The report foretells significant gross domestic product and job losses — cutting across the energy, agricultural, manufacturing and semiconductor industries — that shortages of groundwater and surface water will naturally trigger.
Unfortunately, Texas’ strategy of planning for a repeat of the 1950s drought is no longer enough. While historic evidence identifies droughts that were longer and more severe than the Drought of Record, contemporary data points to a likely future of increasing drought severity. A report by Texas 2036 and the Office of the State Climatologist at Texas A&M University projects that rising average temperatures and greater rainfall variability will contribute to a future with more severe droughts.
Given this lengthy history and projected future, Texas needs to think differently about how we plan and prepare for drought. We can deduce that a drought worse than the Drought of Record will inflict greater economic damage on industries critical to our continued prosperity.
Fortunately, state policymakers have options. For starters, the state should require the Texas Water Development Board to consult with the State Climatologist on drought trends so that Texans have a better idea of the challenges we face. In addition, the State Water Plan should assess how well existing and recommended water projects would perform if Texas faced a drought of greater severity and duration, and also contemplate what emergency options could be implemented during such an event. And more critically, given the scarcity of water during drought times, we need to reassess how we are valuing water in Texas.
Droughts are part of the Texas experience. Our history offers a cautionary tale about drought as does the unfolding catastrophe in much of the Western United States, especially in California. There, an unprecedented megadrought has lowered water levels below intakes, threatened hydropower production and prompted curtailments of water for agriculture.
California’s hardships could foreshadow a grim future for Texas unless we confront our persistent water vulnerabilities by mastering the lessons of past droughts and preparing for a future of greater drought extremes.