Study: In Drought Planning, Water Managers Should Look Further Back Than 1950s

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Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux
As we near the end of 2011, let us now look back on the year (without much fondness) and take stock. We racked up one of driest years in recorded history (more on that in a moment). The livestock and agricultural industries took a shuddering blow that, when the final accounting comes, might just break into the double-digit billions of dollars. Texas's herd declined at a rate not seen since the 30s. And, by all accounts, the drought isn't over yet.

About that "driest year in recorded history." Turns out, as we head into another arid year, and probably another after that, everyone -- especially water managers -- would do well to look a little deeper into the past. For Texas, the seven-year drought of the 1950s is the touchstone by which we compare all others. But it isn't much more than a wink in the eons. According to a new study using the trunks of long-lived trees to gauge precipitation in centuries past, it ain't the worst Mother Nature can dish out. And as anthropogenic climate change pushes weather to extremes, it's bound to get bad. Factor in a state whose population growth shows no sign of slowing, and you get a recipe for water crisis.

"This and previous studies indicate that severe decadal-scale droughts have occurred in Texas at least once a century since the 1500s. Current use by water planners of the 1950s drought as a worst-case scenario, therefore, is questionable," the Texas Water Journal says. "When water managers consider past droughts, population growth, and climate change, it becomes highly probable that the future poses unprecedented challenges."

They identified 30-year droughts in the 1500s, 1700s and mid-1800s, which is, coincidentally, about as far back as conventional meteorological observations go.

"The recurrence of severe prolonged drought in South Central Texas appears to be the norm," the study concludes, "not the exception."

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Tcon45
Tcon45

For at least 25 years that I know of, the real water experts at what is now the TCEQ have been trying to get the state to get at least a couple of steps ahead by building more surface storage reservoirs. They've been pretty much ignored by the geniuses we keep electing to mismanage our state.

Diana Powe
Diana Powe

I strongly recommend the recent book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman for a highly readable and non-panicky look at the challenges we all face in water availability.

Cold and Bubbly
Cold and Bubbly

I strongly recommend a Big Gulp while reading the Big Thirst.

RTGolden
RTGolden

to JH - Brantley writes about lack of water, Schutze writes about dangerous over-abundance of it.  Maybe not the most scintillating of topics, but if that's what you want, I'm sure Anna, Robert or Leslie will have yet another story about Chewbaca Kardashian in a few moments.

To Brantley - Please explain what anthropomorphic climate change is?  I think you're trying to say human-caused climate change, which isn't accepted as fact yet (human influence in climate change is, but not as a sole cause).  Instead you are somehow going to impart human characteristics or form or motivation to climate change? That's what I want you to explain.

Brantley Hargrove
Brantley Hargrove

RT, you're too right. I always get those two words mixed up. What I meant is anthropoGENIC. Per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change: Warming upper-level ocean temps; ocean level rise over the last half century; the observed warming of global temps over the last half century; an observed increase in the height of the tropopause; more intense tropical cyclones observed over the last half century; increases in heavy rainfall and drought (extremes) observed over the last half century; reduction in sea ice over the latter half of the 20th century. I could go on.

You see a pattern beginning to emerge.

RTGolden
RTGolden

Were they in existence at the time, I'm sure the IPC and their technology would have noticed similar weather patterns leading to another vast and severe warming trend about 10,000 years ago.  It ended an ice age.  Even the IPC and the most alarmist of CREDIBLE environmentalists will stop short of saying human-caused climate change, and will instead refer to it as human influence on climate change.

What would you like to do, get rid of technology, industry, human advancements and go back to the pastoral heaven of ancient times?  You remember, life span of 40 years or so, slash and burn agriculture (which started the process of desertification in many places), famine (the naturally induced kind, not the political tool famine has become today).  The problem with environmental activism is it is rarely rational, mostly emotional.  Everything we do to become better stewards of the environment will utilize the technologies and industries we blame for the environmental changes now.

Oh and just a reminder, the same environmentalists were raising the alarm about the same causes 25-35 years ago, but it was causing global cooling and leading to another ice age.  I guess whatever falls into the fashionable realm of environmentalism will work, eh?

cp
cp

RE: Shutze's fear of flooding. Flooding happens in droughts. Ever heard of a flash flood? Happens in Big Bend every year and yes, it is dangerous since the dry earth acts like concrete, and water- instead of absorbing into the ground- sheets off and creates flooding. Now, imagine if upstream from a river in a wide plain the amount of arable land has been depleted due to development. And that flood plain was squeezed into a chute. So that when it does rain on the dry earth, and with all the concrete and houses upstream, do you think the water in between the levees will rise faster or slower? 

RTGolden
RTGolden

I wasn't contending the validity of the writing here.  I was merely trying to answer someone's question about who's beat it is to write about these things.  Generally speaking, Schutze writes about the floodplain and Hargrove writes about the drought.Thanks for the primer on flash flooding but being raised in the Great Basin area of western colorado, i'm well aware of the impacts of torrential rain on dry earth.

Observerationist
Observerationist

The "anthropomorphic climate change pushes weather to extremes" line clued me in that this was from one of those new school journalists from the University of Sears Driving School of Journalism Academy.

John Hall
John Hall

actually I think Brantley is a product of UNT's journalism program, which means you get black-out drunk and worship wackjob George Getschow. Then Getschow writes you an obscenely glowing recommendation for your penitence. It's all part of an elaborate circle jerk among hacks.

John Hall
John Hall

Brantley, let me assure you that I am very well informed on the subject of George Getschow. I have no doubt you could dig up some former coworker of his from the WSJ to speak well of him, but it would do nothing to dispel the reality of the man in the present day. As for him not being here to defend himself, you're welcome to invite him to our discussion. My experience with him suggests that instead of answering for himself, he'll call on his band of merry worshipers (i.e., you, Mooney et al.) to blindly rush to his defense or casually dismiss any criticism of him because the accuser was "given a bad grade." Quite a devoted following he has!

Speaking of which, isn't it um ... strange? that a man who's basically been drinking his career into the ground for the last 20 years has such loyal soldiers? How'd he learn how to manipulate people like this? I direct you to George Getschow's spiritual mentor, Brother Leo. Leo was a Catholic monk who raised money for the church ... until he decided he wanted to raise money for himself. While she was on her death bed, he conned a drunken oil heiress -- Sarita Kennedy East -- into giving her entire fortune not to the church, not to her family, but to Brother Leo himself. Following a slew of bad publicity, Leo conned George into writing some favorable pieces about him in the WSJ. He then conned Getschow into quitting his job and writing a favorable BOOK about him. You know the book I'm talking about, Brantley. He's been "writing" it for 20 years. Where is this phantom book anyway? 20 years to write a book?

Well, the story of Brother Leo has already been written ... 20 years ago: http://www.amazon.com/If-You-L...

I suggest you read it so YOU can educate yourself on George Getschow.

Brantley Hargrove
Brantley Hargrove

John Hall. Is that a pseudonym? I ask only because ad hominem attacks on a man who isn't here to defend himself don't count for much. And, if it is your real name, I'm not sure I'm aware of your existence outside of your role here as a troll. Out of curiosity, what are you doing with your degree, or are you still in school? If you are still a student, I offer some advice: Quit sitting in misinformed judgement of him and you might learn something. Don't take my word for it. Ask journalists and authors far more accomplished than I, who worked under him at the WSJ. Along with a few hilarious anecdotes, they'll tell you they learned a heck of a lot.

John Hall
John Hall

Have you ever heard of George giving bad grades? Is it possible to get a bad grade in George's classes? He tells us to read a 500-page piece of fiction and then never follows up on it. He assigns homework and then doesn't collect it. And, as I know you know, he writes the stories for his students anyway. What's he going to do -- give a story he wrote an F?

It's what happens when you combine debilitating alcoholism, uncompromising narcissism and religious fundamentalism in an aging washed up nut. Yet you've looked inside this man's soul and found a role model.

Brantley Hargrove
Brantley Hargrove

Wow, John. Grinding an axe, I see. Did George give you a bad grade? Did I piss in your cornflakes?

scottindallas
scottindallas

I made a similar point above.  We don't have to be believers to want ample water supply, efficiency, or conservation.  To interject contentious ideas subverts the credibility of the author--makes him look like an activist. 

I also wanted to point out that we don't know what the total rainfall for the year will be.  I think we are expecting another rain event or two before years end.  One feature of the la Nina system are mild, wet Winters.  If we are able to trap that runoff in lakes, as we will no doubt be able to, as they are low, these seasonal surfeits can be captured.  Whereas our typical rainy Springs see vast volume rush over the spillways. 

I'm not dismissive of any of this, I'm just not alarmist.  Alarmism introduces Greenwashing, and stupid decisions.  Such as Windmills.  If we'd spent a fraction of what we spent on Windmills on Gas fired electric plants, we wouldn't be facing black/brown outs.  Of course, if we hadn't deregulated, we wouldn't be facing either the blackouts, nor the exorbitant rates we've been charged.

guest
guest

It's not raining nor pouring,and Texas is scorching,the cattle's all dyin',the creeks are runnin' dry,good lord can you help us,I don't wanna see Texas die,so I do solemnly summon the ghost of SRV,cuz the sky ain't cryin' like it's supposed to be,and now when my eyes are turned upward to the clouds,the only precipitation I see,are my tears falling down...

El Rey
El Rey

I think John Hall is Tom Hicks' landscaper...

Augie
Augie

Yet the building spree includes more of the same...water thirsty landscape choices, automated sprinklers watering the streets "real good", and billions of gallons a year pumped into fracking wells.  At least our neighbors love us and want to help us out by selling their bounty of water...nope.  At least our elected officials are putting their best and brightest on long term planning for this...nope.  At least our population takes this stuff seriously and is rising up demanding we address these issues...nope.  (see, e.g. John Hall below)

They will only care when it hits them in the pocket book and/or they aren't allowed to use as much water as they can possible figure out a way to use.   

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

But how can global warming be blamed now?

scottindallas
scottindallas

you point out a great irony there Scruffy.  I bristled at Brantley's inclusion of "anthropogenic," sorry Brant, that is sloppy writing.  Like it or not, and Scruffy's comment proves it, you make an contentious, needless and as yet unproven idea.  It doesn't aid your article, to the contrary, it really needlessly tags you as agenda driven and not evidence driven.  Again, we can all get behind efficiency, prudent planning based on all the information we can get, and sensible conservation--regardless whether we are environmental activist, skeptics, or deniers. 

Brantley Hargrove
Brantley Hargrove

Actually, Scott, it isn't my conclusion. Climate change is one of the major prongs of this study, to wit: "When water managers consider past droughts, population growth, and climate change, it becomes highly probable that the future poses unprecedented challenges."

That's from the study's intro. They go on at more length further down. There's no point arguing it because I don't see climate change as a political issue or a subject for legitimate debate. I don't see conspiracy in the consensus of the global scientific community.

RTGolden
RTGolden

See here Brantley.  Nobody is taking affront at climate change, it is the attribution to human causes that is questionable.  Climate change certainly shouldn't be subjected to legitimate debate, it happens every spring and fall.  Human caused catastrophic climate change definitely should be open to debate.  To think otherwise is to disregard everything science stands for.

John Hall
John Hall

Is Brantley Hargrove's beat "Everything that's boring"? Cause everything he writes -- both the subject and the way it's written -- makes me fall asleep. I thought the Observer's schtick was being snarky and clever. Not painfully boring and un-newsworthy.

guest
guest

Just repeat this mantra, "at least it's not Tim Rogers, om"...."at least it's not Tim Rogers, om". 

Brantley Hargrove
Brantley Hargrove

Gosh, JH, I guess I didn't realize research identifying Texas's climatological propensity for multi-decade drought every century or so (which, by the way, could completely alter life in this state as we know it) didn't constitute news. Or that it would be an appropriate occasion for snark.

JRinDallas
JRinDallas

The snark is actually really amazing.  Without water or the inability to accurately predict how much water will be available in the short and medium term, DFW (or any locale, really) is screwed.

We've made many, many assumptions via urban and economic growth throughout the Sun Belt--investments in infrastructure and people building homes and tending farms.  When those assumptions fall flat (ie. when something as basic as water is in too short supply, or too much), things can get costly and disasterous fast.

scottindallas
scottindallas

Funny, I found that conclusion far from well supported in your article.  I doubt the researchers used the same criteria to find these "decadal droughts" each century to analyze the 1950's drought.  For that would likely show, using the same info, and conditions to be a decadal drought."  Again, it's just a guess, but your report admits that we were unable to test these droughts by the methods that we assess weather with today (the last 200 years) 

scottindallas
scottindallas

I know this is belated, but what I object to is using tree ring data for one set of data and other data sources for another set.  What I am asking is whether the tree ring data for the 50s was used to check the rainfall readings.  Also, it would be important to ensure that the relative conditions are the same--such as ensuring that the 50's data wasn't perverted by irrigation run-off or other man-made distortions. 

I am pointing out the obvious here, but if it is so obvious, what remains is the question of how these overlap, and whether and how they were crosschecked with rain gauge data.  Perhaps you were given some insight into this, but it didn't make it to us. 

Brantley Hargrove
Brantley Hargrove

Scott, do you take issue with the study of paleoclimatology using tree rings altogether? There definitely weren't guys with rain gauges spread across Texas 400+ years ago. Nor will data for centuries past be as detailed as meteorological data for the 20th century, but that's a given.

JRinDallas
JRinDallas

Sometimes the boring sh*t (ie. like how much water we have, where and how our energy is delivered) is the most important sh*t.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

I came away with a somewhat different take... highly engaged and terrified.

JimS
JimS

We must all begin drinking our own urine immediatlely.

Renegade
Renegade

Call Kevin Costner-- get that machine he used in Water World

scottindallas
scottindallas

The greatest jump in water efficiency would be to create a brown water irrigation system.  This would be costly, installing essentially redundant water lines, but irrigated landscapes likely yields benefits to local water levels.  A dry arid landscape and a well watered landscape both operate like feedback loops.  A well watered landscape will recycle that water with morning dew, additional shade other water saving measures.  Further, brown water systems for irrigation offers fertilizer benefits to the plants, and the landscapes, soil and drainage further purify that water. 

Don't know if we'll get anyone courageous enough to propose that, and I seriously doubt the citizens will be eager to fund such an extensive system. 

Tim Covington
Tim Covington

Shoot, you don't even need to use brown/black water. Use grey water (shower, sinks and washing machine) for irrigation. One of my winter projects is to set up a grey water system for my garden in the backyard using water from my washing machine.

Paul
Paul

According to TCEQ, cities are allowed to limit the sales of phosphate containing detergents.  TCEQ studies of P and N loading in the Trinity River show a marked decrease in the TP at Lake Livingston and into Galveston Bay.  This decrease was noted to occur in about 1990.

The ban on phosphate containing detergents was initiated by states and Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes.  This was in response to the 'green slime carpet" on the bottom of Lake Erie and the eutrophication of other lakes around the country.

The effect due to the partial bans is that phosphate free detergents are sold vitually nationwide.

The other effect is that unless a water treatment facility does not have tertiary treatment to remove N and P from the wastewater stream, they will be unable to meet the requirements for an NPDES permit.

As far as the sales of phosphate containing detergents is concerned, it is true that it is still allowed in Texas, however, the only practical phosphate containing detergent will likely only be TSP from the hardware store.

hth

Joe
Joe

I'm out in the country and had no codes to deal with when I built in 1982, so:My washing machine, showers and hand sinks all drain onto the soil surface. I use it to water trees, flower beds and a vegetable garden. I do not store it or treat it.When I'm not doing much gardening, it just drains onto the lawn.Growth is lush. No odor issues

Anon
Anon

Actually they are allowed in Texas (clearly). They are just not allowed in enough states that detergent manufacturers no longer bother making the phosphate formulas.

Paul
Paul

Phosphates are no longer allowed in detergents as a cleaning agent.  If you look carefully on the package somewhere it is labeled "Phosphate Free".

scottindallas
scottindallas

I would have some concern for the phosphates and other things contained in the wash water.  I'm no expert, and not sure if there is a problem or not, so check that out first.  Also, you may need to use different soaps and solvents.  Actually, Ammonia would be better than soaps though I have no idea what that does to clothes.

JM
JM

we are pondering the same, are you storing it first or discharging as you wash? Is this the Mother Earth News of Dallas?

guest
guest

I've already stocked up on Bud Light, so urinated drinks...check!

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