NATURAL RESOURCES CONSIDERS FUTURE WATER USE; DROUGHT IMPACT
The Senate Natural Resources Committee today heard testimony on the status of water resources in the state. Experts from various state agencies who deal with water management in Texas testified with respect to how the state is dealing with increased water demand in the face of decreasing water resources.
Jack Colley, head of the Governor's Emergency Management Division and chairman of the Drought Preparedness Council testified that the period beginning in April 2005 through today is the fourth driest period in Texas history. He said the current drought is affecting the state in four major areas: wildfires, drinking water, agriculture and economic impact.
Colley said that the current winter wildfire season will likely extend through August, as weather forecasts for that time predict higher than average temperatures but sub-average precipitation levels. Since November of 2005, Texas firefighters have responded to more than 11,000 wildfires, that have burned 4 million acres of land, and have destroyed 400 homes and claimed 19 lives. The economic impact of these wildfires is estimated at $61.7 million.
The drought has increased water demand in more than 11,000 local water systems, especially in south and west Texas. Lack of rainfall has all but destroyed the winter wheat crop, said Colley, and has led to a shortage of hay and other livestock feed. This deficit was compounded when hurricane Rita wiped out many hay storage sites in east Texas.
Colley estimates that this most recent drought has cost the state about $1.5 billion so far, and these costs will continue to mount through the summer. He warned that impact of this drought could rival the impact of the historic 1998 drought.
Though the damage to the state from this drought has been considerable, Colley said that prior planning and the creation of a state drought response plan in 1998 has enabled the state to soften the blow to the Texas economy and population. " There has been a tremendous amount of improvement in our ability to understand the consequences of drought with respect to wildfire and to economic impact. The way you defeat drought, you can't make it rain more, there's nothing you can do like many disasters. It's the most insidious of disasters because of the long term impact on community structures. The best thing you can do is plan, and that's happened across the state," he said.
Larry Soward, a commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, provided the committee with a look ahead to future water use in Texas. Current estimates predict that the population of Texas will double by 2050, which will lead to a large increase in demand for water resources, especially along river basins, where the growth will be concentrated. This will necessitate improvement to Texas' local and state water infrastructure, if the state is to address this increased demand.
One of the major issues facing Texas is water reuse. Much of Texas' surface water comes from treated wastewater releases into rivers and streams. In fact, Soward said, about 60 percent of the groundwater used in Texas is fed back into the state's water system in the form of wastewater. Local fish and wildlife, as well as cities that lie downstream of these release points, rely on this influx of water to maintain a healthy environment. As water demand increases, many large water users will likely apply for water reuse permits. Instead of putting that water back into rivers and streams, users will recycle wastewater. This could lead to a severe deficits in watershed areas that depend on wastewater releases.
Soward said the state must begin to deal with the hard questions about water allocation, from transferring water from water-plentiful areas to water-poor areas, to reconsidering the requirements and eligibility of water reuse permits. In the face of increasing population and decreasing water availability, Soward said that lawmakers must address water use needs sooner rather than later. " These issues are too important to Texas' future not to keep working diligently toward consensus approaches to effectively dealing with them. The need to meaningfully and sufficiently plan for the water demands of a rapidly-growing Texas is unquestioned."