Hope on horizon: El Niño expected to bring relief this fall
Thursday, September 13, 2012 |
- PHOTO BY TERRY HAGERTY Melvin Dube feeds cattle on his McDade-area ranch. Although he says it’s still very dry in Central Texas, it’s not quite as bad, at least for his ranch, as it was in the summer and fall of 2011.
By Esther Robards-Forbes and Terry Hagerty
Austin Community Newspapers
The historic drought in Texas has caused some important firsts this year.
In January, Spicewood Beach, located on the shores of Lake Travis, became one of the first Texas towns forced to truck in water when local wells were in danger of running dry. In March, the Lower Colorado River Authority put an emergency water management plan into place that shut off water to rice farmers in Southeast Texas for the first time in history.
The current drought officially began in October of 2010, but many Central Texans say they never fully recovered from the drought that ended in fall 2009. That one-two punch has caused devastating consequences for agriculture, businesses and municipalities. Pile on a booming population that likes to drink water and take showers, and the stress fractures start to show like cracks in a dry lake bed.
There are several factors contributing to Texas droughts, as is the case for the current one, said John Nielson-Gammon, state climatologist and professor of atmospheric studies at Texas A&M University.
The first factor is the oft-discussed La Niña phenomenon, which is characterized by colder than normal temperatures in the central Pacific. That means more rain for the Pacific coast, but drier conditions for the Southwest. The Pacific has been experiencing La Niña conditions for much of the past two years.
When conditions flip, an El Niño weather pattern occurs, which brings higher than normal rainfalls to Texas and other parts of the United States. Nielson-Gammon and other weather experts predict El Niño conditions should begin this fall, likely in November.
The Pacific has been experiencing the effects of La Niña the past few years. This is likely because of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or long-term periods of warm or cold water in the Pacific contributing to wet or dry weather patterns. The PDO typically lasts 20-30 years, which is currently in a cold phase that has lasted since the late 1990s.
Ever wonder why periods of drought in Texas seem to come every 20 years or so? (This was the case in the 1910s, 1930s, 1950s, 1970s — you get the picture.) The PDO is one explanation.
“The good news is that these patterns are cyclical and not permanent,” Nielson-Gammon said. “We’re more than halfway through, so things are looking up.”
The current drought has been one of the most intense on record, and there are a couple of reasons for that, scientists said.
The Atlantic is experiencing a particularly warm period right now. The last time cold Pacific conditions and warm Atlantic conditions aligned was in the 1950s, during the seven-year long drought of record.
Add to that a dash of climate change, and you have a recipe for a particularly intense drought, Nielson-Gammon said.
“Climate change doesn’t play a discernible role in the lack of rainfall, but it did contribute about a degree to the excess heat,” he said.
That excess heat causes more evaporation and drier soil. Without moisture in the soil soak up the sun’s energy, a vicious cycle of heat and dryness can feed on itself, Nielson-Gammon said.
While climate experts are predicting wetter weather this winter, they are cautiously optimistic. Nielson-Gammon warned that with the overall upward trend in temperatures and climbing Texas population, the next time a dry period rolls around it may be even more intense, with more demands on the water supply.
“The current drought that we’re experiencing has made policy makers aware of how important water is in the future,” Nielson-Gammon said. “If we’re going to solve our water problems, this is the time to do it.”
Impact on agriculture
Melvin Dube has seen some hot and dry times in 50 years of ranching on his Bastrop County spread south of McDade. And while this summer hasn’t been quite as hard on him as the 2011 drought that gripped Texas through the summer and winter, he said times are still tough.
“We never fully recovered from last year,” Dube said. “And we don’t have underground moisture right now. We’ve had some good rains earlier this year, but we are nowhere close to being fully recovered. Nothing is really growing now, when it comes to grasses.”
So, Dube is reducing his herd, even if most of them look good enough to go on the cover of a ranching-sales brochure.
“I’ve got some more calves to sell on Saturday, either at the auction at Lexington or Giddings,” Dube said. “I would say my herd is not necessarily under heat stress right now, but it’s still pretty dry and the stock ponds are very low around here.”
But last summer was worse. So bad, Dube said, that he remains a bit of an optimist when comparing current conditions to last summer and fall.
“Compared to last year, we’re in wonderful shape,” he said with a tinge of sarcasm. “Last year we had nothing, no grass. We were feeding cattle with supplements.”
With the ponds dried up, Dube hauled water to three troughs to keep his herd hydrated.
For this summer, Dube had 225 mama cows, 14 bulls and about 100 calves at mid-August, but he still found it necessary to reduce his calf numbers.
“I’ve been selling some of the calves with the dry weather we’re getting,” Dube said.
While giving a tour around his ranch in a sturdy pickup truck, Dube said he has adequate hay for now and was well prepared for the drought last summer.
“I had hay saved, going into the summer and winter of 2011,” Dube said. “But I still had to buy two 18-wheelers’ worth of hay.”
Unfortunately, as was the case for more than a few Texas ranchers, he got stuck with some not-so-good hay.
“It was crummy hay – it had a lot of berry vines in it,” Dube said.
Drought’s drain on Lake Travis
As Janet Caylor takes her boat out on Lake Travis, she carefully watches the depth gauge. Lake Travis has become a hazardous place to take a boat out because of lake levels that were 44 feet lower than normal in August. The lake has become an emaciated shadow of its former self, with naked limestone ridges rising along the banks.
Many people depend on Lake Travis and the Highland Lakes system. Caylor, who owns Lakeway Marina, depends on it for her business. Municipalities like Austin, Pflugerville, Cedar Park and much of Travis County depend on it for drinking water. Farmers in South Texas depend on it for water to grow rice and other crops. The Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the lakes, also uses water pushed through the dams to produce electricity, which is sold to 42 utilities.
With that many people depending on a rapidly dwindling resource, there are going to be some fights – and inevitably some losers.
Caylor estimates that businesses around the lake have suffered a 20- to 50-percent drop in customers.
“The human costs, the monetary costs and the bankruptcies are tremendous,” said Caylor, who has served on numerous water policy boards representing the interests of Lake Travis businesses. “Central Texans, we are running out of water, and everybody has a dog in this hunt, and they don’t seem to think so.”
Ask anyone on Lake Travis about the drought and they’ll point downstream and start talking about rice farmers. During 2011, the single worst year of drought on record, 800,000 acre-feet of water was pulled out of Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan. About 450,000 of that went to rice farmers in South Texas, Caylor said.
When lake levels were dipping below all but one of the public boat ramps, and the lake was seeing its lowest inflows in recorded history, lake residents and business owners were outraged to see water being sent downstream.
“Lake Travis businesses have been kicked in the teeth,” Caylor said. “This is not about recreation. This is an economic engine for the state. We need reasonable operating ranges put in place or we’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Meanwhile, rice farmers have protested having their water cut off, saying that leaving the water in the lake for recreational and aesthetic value is a waste of the resource.
A letter sent to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by a group of rice farmers to protest the emergency shutoff said, “It is well documented that Lakes Buchanan and Travis were intended to be ‘storage buckets’ that would be ‘filled and drained’ to supply water for beneficial uses – they were not built nor intended to be constant-level lakes. Use of the lakes for recreational and/or aesthetic purposes is strictly for a fortunate incident side benefit of their existence.”
That side benefit includes an economic engine that provides $207 million in revenue to state and local governments, $8.4 billion in assessed property value, $3.6 million in hotel and mixed-beverage taxes and $45.2 million in sales taxes when Lake Travis is full.
If TCEQ sides with the farmers and reinstates the previous water management, the two lakes could be drained to a combined 200,000 acre feet, just-one tenth of the combined storage capacity.
“It’s going to be a mud puddle,” Caylor said.
On the real estate side, realtor Art Adams estimates that property values for lakefront properties on Lake Travis are down about 40 percent, because many are no longer considered waterfront. The property values of non-lakefront properties have also taken a hit.
A recent economic study of the Lake Travis area estimated that the low lake levels could result in $15 million to $20 million in decreased property tax revenues. That amounts to millions of dollars less to pay for roads, schools and other improvements across the county and state.
David Lindsay, a board member of the Central Texas Water Coalition, summed it up.
“Everyone is about economic development in this state,” he said. “Well, this is reverse economic development.”
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