The Texas heat is more than an inconvenience this summer. It has become dangerous.
The abnormally dry weather and near-record temperatures that have seared Central Texas over the past week have drawn attention to two major issues: the heightened danger of brush fires, and the tenuous nature of the region’s water supply.
Over the past several days, major wildfires of 150 acres or more have turned brush to ash in Bell, Coryell and Lampasas counties, with one massive brush fire scorching more than 5,000 acres north of Copperas Cove. Another blaze charred 300 acres west of Temple on Friday.
The fires are testing the limits of rural firefighters, who have relied on mutual-aid agreements with neighboring departments to secure the needed fire support to bring the blazes under control.
But with more hot weather — and no rain — in the forecast for the coming week, the outlook for area firefighters is ominous.
It’s not just the rural areas that are feeling the impact of the unusually hot, dry weather.
Cities across the area have started calling for voluntary water use restrictions as lake levels continue to fall. With Belton Lake falling four feet below its normal level, Harker Heights and Belton this week issued a Stage 1 drought watch, following a similar action by the Brazos River Authority. For Belton, it was the first time the city had issued a watch since 2011, when the state suffered through a severe drought.
Killeen and Temple have been under Stage 1 drought watches since June, as is their standard annual procedure, but on Thursday, Temple activated Stage 2, in response to the hot, dry conditions.
Suggested voluntary conservation measures include limiting watering of lawns and washing of cars, as well as not filling swimming pools as often.
The city of Belton has reduced its water use as well, and city spokesman Paul Romer said the city would cut water to the city’s splash pads if the drought worsens.
With no rain in forecast for the next week, and continued triple-digit temperatures speeding the evaporation of surface water from area lakes, it’s not only possible but likely that voluntary water restrictions will be replaced by mandatory restrictions across Central Texas in the coming weeks.
Longtime Central Texans will no doubt remember some severe droughts that gripped the area between 2009 and 2015.
Between 2013 and 2015, wells in Bell and Williamson counties that tap into the Trinity Aquifer came up dry — an indicator of how much population growth in the area has taxed the water-bearing sediment layer that underlies the area.
Already suffering from dry wells, the Williamson County town of Florence went to Stage 5 water conservation measures in 2012 and was forced to haul water from Cedar Park after a pump on one of the remaining working wells burned out. Car washes and lawn watering were banned. Dry conditions subsequently forced the high school football team to play all its games on the road because the Buffaloes’ home field was rendered unplayable by insufficient watering.
While the Killeen area is in relatively good shape regarding its future water supply — at least through 2070, contractually speaking — an extended period of unusually hot, dry weather could put the entire region’s surface water and groundwater resources in jeopardy.
Exactly seven years ago, in late July 2011, Belton Lake was six feet below normal and Stillhouse Hollow Lake was down 10 feet because of an extended period of hot, dry weather — exposing trees and boat docks on the shoreline and causing dangerous hazards to boaters. Lake levels continued to fall for the remainder of the summer.
Given the current spate of hotter-than-usual weather, it’s not unreasonable to envision a similar scenario this summer.
Whether the extreme heat is due to climate change or it’s just a cyclical swing in Texas weather patterns, it’s imperative that state lawmakers make water reuse and conservation a priority in the coming legislative session.
State-funded programs to build rainwater collection systems that augment municipal water supplies and recharge underground aquifers would be good investments in the state’s future.
Similarly, grants to give cities an incentive to develop partially treated “gray water” irrigation of municipal golf courses and other city property — as is done in Killeen — will help to extend the available water resources.
Individual residents can help, too. It may be trite, but using less water should be a community effort — with an emphasis on limiting car washing, lawn watering and wasteful indoor water use.
As we move deeper into summer, the long-term effects of the Texas heat likely will continue to take their toll on the state’s landscape.
But more importantly, the stifling heat poses a serious threat to its residents — particularly those who lack air conditioning or can’t afford to keep it turned down to comfortable levels.
Several area cities have opened cooling stations where impacted residents can gather to get away from the heat. However, many of these facilities have limited hours of operation, and some residents are unable to travel to the shelters to cool off.
At this time of year, first responders typically conduct welfare checks to make sure residents aren’t in danger because of excessive heat.
Additionally, churches, civic organizations and other groups can help to identify those who need assistance — either through the purchase of a box fan or providing financial help with utility bills.
The extreme, prolonged heat we’ve been seeing in Central Texas is dangerous — and potentially lethal.
We owe it our neighbors — and to ourselves — to do what we can to help those who are most impacted by this unseasonably hot weather.
In the meantime, we can do what Texans do every summer: Pray for some rain.