We live in a veritable desert.
Yet the waters of Stillhouse Hollow seem bottomless as jet skis and sailboats revel on this sunny Memorial Day weekend.
“This is a semi-arid region, just look at the isoclines as you go east,” said Tim Brown, Bell County commissioner for Precinct 2.
Brown was referring to a U.S. with wetter regions to the east and northeast. The northwest region of the U.S. also has high precipitation totals.
Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Texas, drought appears and disappears, sometimes from one week to the next, as seen on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weekly drought report at Drought.gov. One part of the state might be drought-free while another part of the drought map is covered with the red and crimson tones indicating severe and extreme droughts.
“I hesitate to use the word cyclical because it’s more random than that,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station. “Predicting the weather is like throwing darts at a dartboard but you can make the dartboard bigger with better forecasting technology and methods.”
It is known that the Lone Star State has experienced periods of drought in every decade of the 20th century, according to the Texas Water Development Board. Droughts can deplete water supplies, lead to wildfires and have a ripple effect of economic impacts.
The new drought map released on Tuesday shows most of Bell County in the “abnormally dry” category with a few areas in the next level up in the drought scale, “moderate drought.”
Scientists behind the Drought.gov reports consider many factors, including temperatures, soil moisture and water levels in streams and lakes.
With an “unusually warm and dry conditions” for Bell County over the next few weeks, a National Weather Service meteorologist predicts that the county will increase one category in the drought monitor by early June, into “severe drought.”
“Temperatures will average 8 to 10 degrees above normal, with near zero rainfall, which is not good during what should be the wettest time of the year,” said Victor Murphy, Climate and COOP (Cooperative Observer Program) Services Program Manager in the Southern Plains region for the National Weather Service. Droughts are a unique phenomenon.
“Unlike other weather phenomena, a significant drought can take a long time to settle in, coming on slowly over months or even years,” Murphy said. “On a day-to-day basis, we might have a day or two of rain but, still, in the overall long-term patterns, it’s a drought.”
Murphy said global warming is creating a “continued, gradual and subtle increase in temperatures.”
“This puts an increased stress on surface water resources and agriculture,” he said. “It manifests itself in more water lost to evaporation in surface lakes, and increased need for water for irrigation and watering lawns.”
Several factors are contributing to the stress as years go by.
“Texas is growing like crazy, it’s amazing how fast it’s happening,” Murphy said.
Global warming is another factor.
“We’re warming up incrementally, little by little: It’s not happening overnight but decades down the road it will create a huge stress on our water supply, especially as moisture is sucked out of the soil by higher temperatures,” Murphy said.
The rate of evaporation also is important for a region that uses reservoirs as a water source.
Murphy said he could not give an exact number for the rate of evaporation during a drought, but precipitation records from the past tell the whole story.
“Evaporation in inches can vary from 52 inches per year in a very wet and cool year (2007) versus 72 inches in a very hot and dry year (2011),” Murphy said. “In the drought year of 2011, the approximate 20 inches of rain fell far short of the water loss of 72 inches due to evaporation.”
Scientists throw darts
Meteorology is not an easy science, nor is it for the faint of heart.
Murphy was born and raised in Miami, so he is no stranger to extreme weather. “I remember tracking hurricanes in the ’60s in the hallway of my house, with no lights on and listening to the radio. Everyone just hunkered down because we didn’t have the forecast skills we do now,” Murphy said. “Those experiences got me interested in weather.”
Nielsen-Gammon said Texas is a pathway of extreme weather phenomena, tornadoes, floods and droughts. “We’re studying how rainfall and drought conditions change over time, especially based on seasonal factors,” he said.
Nielsen-Gammon thinks temperatures this summer are going to be above-average, in keeping with the National Weather Service’s forecast to expect late summer temperatures in May.
Both Murphy and Nielsen-Gammon see a good chance of the current La Niña pattern ending this fall, to be replaced by its counterpart, El Niño.
“So that’s good news on the horizon for farmers and ranchers,” Nielsen-Gammon said. La Niña and El Niño have a major impact on whether an area is in a drought. La Niña tends to induce dry weather while El Niño years are wet.
While it is often seasonal, “it’s not too uncommon to have La Niña in back to back years, like in 2010 and 2011,” when the state was immersed in a drought, Murphy said. “These patterns can last for years and make an area more drought-prone.”
The El Niño Southern Oscillation tends to be dominant in the fall and winter, and La Niña takes over in the spring and summer, according to the Texas Water Development Board. Summer, with its La Niña, is the worst time for drought. “It’s a triple whammy, with heat, increased water demands and less rain,” Murphy said. By the fall things tend to ease with the onset of El Niño.
“For the long term, we need to make sure we’re not overexploiting our water resources,” Brown said.
Brown grew up in Salado, where the Edwards aquifer occasionally rises into historic springs.
“I realized how precious a resource it is,” he said. “I knew it was something we need to take care of.”
To help plan for future water shortages, the Texas Water Development Board releases a state water plan every five years based upon water plans developed by regional planning groups. Each new state water plan considers a 50-year horizon.
The common denominator in all the water plans going back to 1961 is that they all “are based on future conditions that would exist in the event of a recurrence of the worst recorded drought in Texas’ history — known as the ‘drought of record’ [because it was] a time when, generally, water supplies are lowest and demands are highest,” according to the 2017 water plan.
The “drought of record” happened in the 1950s when the state went dry for 7 years. The trauma of the experience led to the formation of the Texas Water Development Board. Brazos G, which oversees Central Texas counties including Bell, is one of 16 regional planning groups established by the water board.
The water plan last year was heavily influenced by droughts because its planning cycle “coincided with the end of the state’s second-worst recorded drought in history, from 2010-2014. 2011 was the stand-out year, as the worst one-year drought,” according to the state water plan.
“Far and away, 2011 was the worst drought since the drought of the 1950s,” Murphy said. “It didn’t last as long but the intensity was worse.”
The 2017 water plan includes an entire chapter devoted to drought, and for good reason.
“Over the course of one year, Texas transitioned from virtually drought free to an exceptional state-wide drought,” according to Bech K. Bruun, Texas Water Development Board chairman, in the 2017 State Water Plan. “The 2011 drought taught us entirely new lessons about how fast drought can strike and how severe it can be.”
Most Bell County municipalities have a water conservation plan they can enact if needed, “but people have to take it seriously,” Brown said. “Water is a finite and vulnerable resource.”
Woven into Killeen’s code of ordinances is a water conservation and drought contingency plan, which is based upon a goal not to exceed a per capita water-use rate of 140 gallons.
“If the per capita water use rate exceeds 140 gallons, the city of Killeen will enact additional water conservation measures in accordance with the recommendations outlined by the Brazos G Water Planning Group 2006 Regional Water Plan,” according to Chapter 30 in the city’s code of ordinances.
The city can change its irrigation plans, enforce designated water days, install more efficient plumbing fixtures, monitor and reduce water loss and establish a meter testing and replacement program, according to the code.
“All cities need to have a good drought action plan based on the levels of water available in water supply reservoirs,” Murphy said. “If it gets too low, pull the trigger and don’t hold back because sometimes people can ‘next week’ themselves into a bad situation: ‘Well, it’s supposed to rain next week.’ So it’s pretty cut and dry but it has to be followed.”
Brown said the county has no special role in managing water except by contributing to research and supporting conservation efforts. “We’ve had a seat at the table of the Brazos G water board for a long time,” he said. Bell County commissioners have allotted $30,000 a year to help fund research.
The Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District is one of Bell County’s conservation accomplishments, Brown asserted. “They understood population was increasing so demand for water increasing.”
With an understanding among hydrogeologists that aquifers can be slow to recharge, Clearwater uses monitoring wells and computer modeling to track how the Edwards and Trinity aquifers are affected by drought.
Currently, both are doing well, with only a 10 percent reduction in usage of the Edwards aquifer recommended and the Trinity indicating no precipitation deficit, according to the organization’s website.
Brown said Brazos G planners are teaming up with other organizations that can help fill in the pieces of the groundwater conservation puzzle: Baylor University’s geology department, the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state-level counterpart, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“We’re working together to study flow paths underground, funding wells to monitor groundwater use that are scattered around the country, and conducting chemical analysis of water,” Brown said.
Murphy said the water board deserves a lot of credit promoting conservation. “There’s still a lot of mistrust in government officials,” he admitted.
People being people, there is pushback sometimes.
“Some people think it’s their God-given right to water their lawns,” Murphy said. “I pay for it; it’s my water, get government off my back. That’s where water conservation campaigns can help. Eventually people will embrace it: it’s better than running out of water.”
What can you do?
The average person might want to start changing their expectations because the water board predicts that water demands will increase 17 percent between 2020 and 2070, as the state’s population is expected to increase more than 70 percent in that 50-year timeframe.
At the same time, “existing water supplies — those that can already be relied on in the event of drought — are expected to decline by approximately 11 percent,” according to the Texas Water Development Board.
“Having a broad expanse of St. Augustine grass and a sprinkler system is not a practical, sustainable model, but we’ve been able to get away with it so far,” Brown said.
During a drought it’s the St. Augustine lawns that turn brown first.
Brown said at the root of the Chisholm Trail takeover was “San Augustine envy.”
“People couldn’t understand why their lawn was turning brown under water rationing while across the street was a green lawn, sprinklers going,” he said.
Nielsen-Gammon said people can get by with less water; even garden plants can be trained to grow deeper roots if given less water. “People adapt, too, such as ranchers during the 2011 drought increased the capacity of their stock tanks,” he said.
For the Average Joe, Murphy had just a few words: “Don’t water your lawns, or at least limit to a few times a week.” Murphy said a new normal is coming, with water conservation measures, such as restricting lawn watering to certain days, becoming law and not just during droughts.
“It’s just everyday life.”