KERA 'Thirsty' Series: How Will We Handle Another Drought?
By Bill Zeeble, KERA News
Dallas, TX – How does drought affect the availability of water? In the second part of a series on water availability called "Thirsty", KERA's Bill Zeeble explores that question. This story is part of a larger KERA multimedia project called 'Living with the Trinity', which can be explored online at trinityrivertexas.org.
KERA's Sam Baker: There are a lot of factors that affect water availability: population; per capita use; pollution that requires treatment; weather. Today we continue our radio series, "Thirsty" by focusing on one big factor- drought.
KERA's Bill Zeeble joins me now. Bill, North Texas was in a drought as recently as a month ago. Where are we now?
Bill: We've fortunately had a lot of rain in the past few weeks - about 50 percent more than usual in spring. In fact, it's been one of the wettest springs in more than a century of record keeping. The western part of our listening area - beginning with western Tarrant County - is still in a drought. Most of the rest of us aren't.
Sam: So does that mean water planners can relax?
Bill: Not exactly. Droughts are unpredictable, but climatologists feel sure we'll have them in the near future.
The worst drought in modern Texas history was in the 1950s. I've talked to people who lived through it. Today those who often feel the first effects of drought live closest to the land. This story starts in Gainesville.
One group of North Texans knows drought more than most. Farmers and ranchers have historically struggled through dry times. Now, they're living through a drought labeled severe by the National Weather Service, meaning crops and water are scarce.
"The drought's been bad this year, for sure," said Gainesville native James Peyrot, Jr. "Wheat pastures we rely on for winter? There ain't none of it made."
Peyrot, better known as "Red Bone," runs the Gainesville Cattle Auction. His barns are full of livestock.
"We've had no grazing - everybody's had to feed a lot more hay than you typically would," he said. "So this rain we did get helped us. It gives us a little hope for having some hay this year, because we've got to have some."
Red Bone said earlier this spring, many ranchers sold off a third or more of their herds to survive. That's because in the drought, they have to buy cattle basics like food ad water. City dwellers don't experience drought the same way, thanks to reservoirs built after the 1950s drought. So these days, when lake levels drop, cities may restrict lawn watering or car washing - but that's about it.
Today's situation is certainly nothing like what Texans lived through half a century ago. The state's worst drought hit in 1950 and didn't really end until 1957. Rainfall was down 40 percent. Dallas's water supply dropped dramatically. 86-year-old Darwin Whiteside, now a board member of the North Texas Municipal Water District, remembers.
"Grapevine Lake was empty, Benbrook Lake was empty, the lake at Arlington was empty, Lavon was empty," Whiteside said.
Whiteside is a retired machinery designer who now raises hay and cattle on a 118 acres in Royse City. In the 1950s he lived in Garland, a fast-growing town of about 10,000 people. It supplied residents with water from wells often dug a few hundred feet deep, sometimes shallower. When water demand during the drought exceeded the city's supply, Garland drilled deeper, more than 3,000 feet down. And companies with water towers - for their own business needs - shared water with the city.
"Garland was running out of water," Whiteside said. "They drilled a new well on Miller Road right by the railroad, by Garland Avenue. They needed the water so desperately they didn't wait to get cooling towers built. They pumped the water directly out of the well into the mains. It was coming out of the cold water tap in your home at about 125-130 degrees, which is hotter than you normally use hot water."
Whiteside said you couldn't drink it until it cooled down, and couldn't take a shower because it was too hot - it came out steaming. But at least there was water.
"My oldest son had polio and we needed to give him baths for therapy," he said. "To give him a bath, you had to draw the water and let it cool before you could put him in it."
It was this infamous drought that gave birth to the North Texas Municipal Water District, which includes Garland. In the current drought, Whiteside is planning for a future with ample water supplies, because experts like State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon say dry conditions will persist.
"Not perpetual drought, but perhaps more frequent drought than we'd had in last part of the 20th century," Nielsen-Gammon said.
He said temperatures have risen in the past few decades, and could rise another four degrees by 2050. Warmer temperatures lead to more evaporation, so plants, people and animals all need more water.
"Right now Texas is as warm as it had been in the '50s," Nielsen-Gammon said. "Any further warming will take us beyond the realm of natural variability and past experience, and put us in new territory. Warmer than we've seen, warmer than anybody's memory. We'll be dealing with a different climate than we had been used to."
That could lead to more wildfires, pricier water with additional restrictions and forced conservation requirements. North Texas Municipal Water District director James Parks says some conservation practices, like time-of-day lawn watering, have already worked. Many communities prohibit watering between peak evaporation hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"Amazingly, within the first six to nine months, we could see a response from our service population, once they knew where their water supply came from, and the importance of that water supply to them and how they could help us extend that water supply," said Jim Parks, North Texas Municipal Water District executive director. "It's been a very successful program, and continues to be."
Some cities, including Dallas and Fort Worth, also impose fines on water use violators - and they're ready with additional restrictions when reservoir levels drop. But Parks said that alone won't provide enough water to weather a long-term drought as the North Texas population grows. That population and its water needs are expected to double by the year 2060.
Parks and other North Texas planners, including Darwin Whiteside, said new water sources are needed to prepare for another devastating drought.
"That's life-threatening, if you don't have water available for your own personal use and water available for fighting fires and things like that," Whiteside said. "Our business is to supply the water that the cities need. And it's our job to be sure we have ongoing planning and construction so that we can meet the needs of the cities."
Whiteside doesn't want future generations to learn firsthand what he and his family lived through more than half a century ago.
Sam: So Bill, how do scientists decide when we're in a drought?
Bill: Scientists look at rain levels, river and lake levels, and agricultural statistics. They use a mathematical formula to determine how far above or below the average we have of accumulated water. Scientists from organizations including the Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have joined ranks to produce a weekly drought assessment (click to go to link in a new window).
Sam: How do water providers factor drought into their long-term plan?
Bill: Planners are required by the state to have a drought contingency plan. They use historical data among other elements, so when calculating for a dry year, planners figure they'll have 15 percent less water.
To learn more about water in our region visit our new website, trinityrivertexas.org.