Gov. Perry’s water board still won’t acknowledge climate change as Texas faces dire drought in 2013

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, March 22, 2013 14:27 EDT
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Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) points to the heavens. Photo: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com.
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AUSTIN, TEXAS — Two top environmental officials in the state of Texas told Raw Story this week that not only is the state ill-prepared to face a summer this year even hotter than the record-breaking drought of 2011, it has largely neglected to begin planning for the unprecedented drought conditions forecast for the next several decades by the U.S. government’s 2013 National Climate Assessment.

The situation is so dire that if fundamental changes are not made to how water is conserved in Texas, the clashing trends of climate change and population growth threaten to utterly strangle the Texas economy over the coming 20-30 years as water costs soar, and activists warn that Gov. Rick Perry (R) is doing nothing but making the problem worse.

“Because the folks on the Texas water board are appointed by Rick Perry, they tend to fall in line with what Rick Perry believes when it comes to climate change,” Alyssa Burgin, executive director of the Texas Drought Project, told Raw Story. “There are many people whose jobs are on the line when it comes to talking about climate change. A mention of it did appear in the most recent state water plan, but any discussion given to it was rudimentary and symbolic, as if they didn’t wish to be accused of being ignorant as scientists… Most of our reservoirs are already in dire need and we’ve not even begun the really hot months. Taken together, it’s going to look like the dust bowl of Oklahoma.”

Reacting to a prediction by the state’s climatologist that 2013 is likely to be the hottest year on recordRobert Mace, deputy executive administrator of Texas Water Development Board and a key figure in the state’s water conservation efforts, said that the most immediate effect of the anticipated water shortages will be rising rates.

The state’s top environmental regulator, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), refused to comment on this article, telling Raw Story they have no opinion on climate change and insisting that “causes of the drought” are not within their purview. The same agency unilaterally deleted all mentions of climate change from a 2011 scientific report on the health of the Galveston Bay estuary, and ultimately sought a Texas Attorney General’s ruling in order to deny Raw Story’s information request for the names of the individuals involved in the censorship.

But just how bad could it get? The Texas AgriLife Extension Service found that the 2011 drought cost farmers more than $7.6 billion in 2011 — so take that for a baseline. Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, told Raw Story he’s concerned that agricultural and drinking water supplies will face unprecedented and systemic strain again in 2013, and that heat-related damages could be worse than 2011.

And if that short-term problem sounds challenging, consider the long-term implications: “Water plans look out 50 years in the future,” Mace said. “So, our plan is focused on a repeat of the drought of record [in the 1950s]… We take a look at what we think our population is going to do, and we think our population is going to almost double in the next 50 years.”

That anticipated population growth poses a serious problem, and one that many state officials aren’t even aware of. The 2013 National Climate Assessment says that climate change has already “doubled” the likelihood of another extremely severe heat event, which the state got a taste of in 2011 (PDF) during the worst single year drought on record. Now with reservoirs running dramatically low statewide, Texas faces a crucial test of its water security in the coming months, and the dire long-term problem of how it can keep a future population of more than 52 million people hydrated when supplies are only expected to diminish from here.

That new type of drought — created both by environmental and socioeconomic factors — will not just impact farmers: it will impact consumers, the government and industry through rising food and fuel costs. But most importantly, it is rising water costs that could become the noose that strangles the state’s economy.

Mace said that some communities experience “sticker shock” when they get their water bills — like the town of Flower Mound, just north of Dallas, which for years has fought the Upper Trinity Water District over rates and proposals to replenish supplies. The district currently appears set on constructing a wholly new lake at a cost of $464 million, funded largely by rate increases.

“So far, most local politicians and rate payers, when faced with that choice, they’ve been making the right decisions and saying, ‘We’re going to pay more now to make sure we have any water at all,’” Mace added.

However, therein lies another problem that’s particular to the state of Texas: those choices are largely tied to building above ground reservoirs, which become less and less effective as the average temperature rises. The National Climate Assessment predicts Texas will experience 3-5 degrees of warming over the coming century even with significant steps taken to reduce heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere, and 6-9 degrees if current trends continue. “Climate change is going to take a very serious toll on Texas, and we’re already seeing that added evaporation from higher temperatures is a serious problem,” Texas Drought Project’s Burgin said. “So what does the state of Texas propose to do? Oh yes, build a lot more reservoirs.”

“I haven’t talked to many legislative members who understand water is going to become that much more expensive,” she added. “What I see happening are powerful political interests becoming part of privatized water systems… I also see a lot of policymakers who are afraid to anger constituents. They feel if they tell folks that historical water rights might have to draw to a close as we adopt more fair [regulations] for water use, they fear that loss of support from special interests in the state.”

The TCEQ is now poised to take launch the state’s first-ever greenhouse gas permitting process, provided Republicans on the Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee can convince their colleagues to pass a bill authored by authored by Rep. Wayne Smith (R) that preempts the EPA’s own permitting process, which the agency has yet to fully roll out.

Perry aide Josh Havens told Raw Story that the TCEQ, along with the Texas Water Development Board and the Texas Division of Emergency Management “continue to work with communities and utilities across the state to assess ground and surface water supplies, and identify measures to trigger conservation efforts before sources hit critical levels. State agencies are also working with partners at the local and federal levels to identify ways to access alternative supplies and clear regulatory hurdles that may be impeding a communities access to water.”

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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