We look at the climate science that warns that Austin faces serious water supply problems, and at the roles played by transportation planning and suburban sprawl in that crisis.
Third of three.
In Part 1 of this series, we observed that Texas is in the grip of the same Southwestern U.S. mega-drought that is hitting California hard. We saw that Texas has an archaic system of water law that allows land development interests to legally secure rural water. In Part 2, we took a close look at how the federally-sanctioned group CAMPO has taken the lead from Austin in Central Texas growth policy, using population projections that ignore water limits and climate change.
In Part 3, below, we look at the recent Austin water data and the climate science that warns that Austin faces serious water supply problems stemming from climate change. We see that recent federal policy calls for transportation planning that considers these factors, but that the planning is not changing.
The Central Texas suburban sprawl promotion interests appear to have political control on the state level. The best hope for a sustainable water policy might be an alliance between the rural landowners and the urban homeowners and taxpayers who both share a common interest in slow growth, serious water conservation, and reform of Texas water law.
Austin’s recent water supply trends
AUSTIN, Texas — More than anything else I have seen, one LCRA chart constitutes smoking-gun evidence that our Texas climate has changed. This data tells me beyond any reasonable doubt that the dependability of Austin’s water municipal supply has shifted dramatically toward the worse in recent years.
The chart above shows the average historic inflow into Austin’s Highland Lakes water reservoirs since 1942 as tall blue bars. The other colored bars show the last three years of inflow, month by month. During these 36 months, Highland Lakes inflow exceeded the historic average only once, in March 2012.
Think about that. If the recent inflows are above or below the historic Highland inflow average, and for the same months of the year, by pure chance we would expect to see about the same number of “aboves” as “belows” in the data. If we are in a drought, we expect to see the number of months with below average inflow to increase in proportion to the severity of the drought.
When using 36 months as a data base, the chances of our Highland Lakes inflow being below the historic average 35 out of 36 months due purely to chance are less than one in a billion.
When using 36 months as a data base, the chances of our Highland Lakes inflow being below the historic average 35 out of 36 months due purely to chance are the same as flipping a coin and seeing it come up heads 35 out of 36 times — less than one in a billion.
Put another way, the chances that Central Texas planners like CAMPO can succeed by assuming that the Central Texas water supply is as secure as it used to be is, by any reasonable standard, very slight. Where is Homeland Security when we really need them?
In 2011, the TOTAL inflow into Austin’s reservoir lakes, at 127,000 acre feet, was less than the City of Austin normally uses just by itself. In fact, the last three years combined ending in December 2013, were not much more than half what used to be the historic inflow average for a whole year. The photograph by Bruce Melton at the top of this article shows Lake Travis as it looks now.
Climate scientists have been warning of a severe impending drought in the U.S. Southwest for decades
The map (above) of the Colorado River watershed shows that it is mostly in West Texas, extending westward into New Mexico. In other words, Austin’s water comes mostly from hundreds of miles away in West Texas, an area predicted to be affected by desertification. This is from an article, “Drought intensifies in western US,” published in Eco-Business:
…A vast area of land in the western region of the American land mass, stretching from the province of Alberta in Canada across to parts of Texas in the US and on down into Mexico, is suffering as reservoirs and rivers dry up. A state of emergency has been declared in several areas, including California.
Dr Wallace Covington is director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. “What we’re seeing across this region is an intensification of long-established aspects of climate change”, Covington told Climate News Network.
“I hate to sound pessimistic but all around in these large watersheds we’re seeing a degradation of water structure and function. There’s increased erosion leading to desertification, and with the dry conditions and generally stronger winds the forest fire season is being extended.”
We should understand that steady stream flow from all the Colorado River basin’s upstream tributaries normally contributes only a small part to Austin’s total water supply. Most of Austin’s water supply actually depends on the continuation of large but infrequent rainfall events in this same area where the climate scientists have been warning us of an increasingly permanent state of drought.
Among climate scientists, there is little doubt that Texas is in the grip of a new hotter, drier weather pattern consistent with their past predictions.
Among climate scientists, there is currently little doubt that Texas is now in the grip of a new hotter, drier weather pattern consistent with their past predictions. I’ll cite some literature and review some of climate change causes and effects, a change driven by burning carbon fuels.
The current drought situation in the U.S. Southwest was predicted more than 20 years ago by a top U.S. climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen. Hansen wrote recently of this earlier work.
The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.
Since Dr. Hansen and others started warning us of impending climate change three decades ago, what has been happening more recently? What is the science telling us now? If readers have time to read only one good scientific review of how climate change is affecting the U.S. Southwest, extending from Texas to California, I recommend this article by Joe Romm in ThinkProgress as a good place to start.
Scientists have long predicted that climate change would bring on ever-worsening droughts, especially in semi-arid regions like the U.S. Southwest. As climatologist James Hansen, who co-authored one of the earliest studies on this subject back in 1990, told me this week, “Increasingly intense droughts in California, all of the Southwest, and even into the Midwest have everything to do with human-made climate change.”
Why does it matter if climate change is playing a role in the Western drought? As one top researcher on the climate-drought link reconfirmed with me this week, “The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999.” If his and other projections are correct, then there may be no greater tasks facing humanity than 1) working to slash carbon pollution and avoid the worst climate impact scenarios and 2) figuring out how to feed nine billion people by mid-century in a Dust-Bowl-ifying world.
Here is a link to an important paper by Richard Seager of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, titled “An imminent transition to a more arid climate in southwestern North America.”
What should we anticipate this next spring in Texas? The map above, from an article in The Washington Post focused on the California drought, shows NOAA’s projected spring 2014 drought conditions for the USA, including much of West Texas.
Our new Texas climate, with ever-more-permanent drought to come
An important part of the global warming pattern is that the Arctic and polar regions are warming up much faster than the IPCC climate models had predicted. Experts are now predicting the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole may be essentially ice-free as soon as several more years. When the white sea ice melts, the sea surface reflects less light, which is then absorbed by seawater, which responds by warming up further. This is called the albedo effect, a self-amplifying type of feedback effect.
The globe is known to be warming on average, but this warming also leads to changed weather patterns that can span the globe. In general, the wet places tend to get wetter (water evaporates exponentially more with increasing temperature), while the dry places get drier.
When the polar regions warm the most, the temperature differentials between northern and southern latitudes decrease. This decrease has a destabilizing effect on the jet stream which, instead of predictably circling the globe near the Arctic, now tends to make huge sluggish north-south loops that bring frigid arctic air masses far south, the recent “polar vortex” ice storms being one example. Overall global warming is thus accentuating ice storms, together with generating crippling summer heat waves and droughts.
Austin climate change and drought information resources
If readers want to focus on Austin’s drought situation, Bruce Melton — a local Austin engineer, climate researcher, Rag Blog contributor on climate science, and Texas State Sierra Club Board member — has written a book, Climate Discovery, and also posted his Texas research and writing on his blog of the same name.
Where is the missing federal guidance on planning for climate change?
As we have seen, the climate scientists have been warning us for decades that, due to climate change, there is likely to be a desert emerging in the Southwest — including West Texas, the area where most of Austin’s water comes from. When we look at the recent reservoir data, we see that statistically the likelihood of Austin’s water supply being as secure and dependable as it used to be is very small.
Perhaps because Austin is weird, and in spite of these warnings, Austin has not been trying very hard to conserve water compared to its neighbor San Antonio. However, the grand prize for myopic planning is deserved by the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board, since CAMPO is spending about $2 million to draft a federally-sanctioned and federally-binding $32 billion transportation plan to accommodate a sprawling population in Central Texas more than twice the current size — without taking water supply or water limits into account in any way.
Does the CAMPO 2040 Plan resemble a real estate Ponzi scheme, a trickle-down result of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s developer-friendly political influence?
Is the CAMPO 2040 Plan smart planning, or does it more closely resemble a real estate Ponzi scheme, a trickle-down result of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s developer-friendly political influence operating on the local level?
In theory at least, federal transportation officials from the top down are already taking climate change into account in their planning and funding for transportation projects in Texas: “Under Executive Order No. 13514 and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Implementing Instructions, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is required to submit a Climate Adaptation Plan for implementation in 2013.” As they say:
Building resilience to climate and weather-related risk is common sense management to protect current and future investments and to maintain safe operational capabilities. Adaptation to climate change can include adjusting how transportation infrastructure is planned, designed, built and operated. Making climate adaptation a standard part of agency planning can ensure that resources are invested wisely and that services and operations remain effective…
As we have seen, and according to the best science, Austin is an area which faces a serious risk from desertification of most of the upstream river basin that supplies Austin’s water. For this reason, the CAMPO area and its $32 billions in future needs would seem to be a prime example of what the feds have in mind by calling for their new approach to planning and funding Texas transportation projects.
President Obama says we need to keep hope alive, but it is hard to see much evidence of planning reform coming from pressure at the federal level. The 2040 CAMPO planning is worse than in the 2035 CAMPO plan by being openly anti-environmental. A prime example of this was the formal decision to delete climate change as a planning consideration from the CAMPO 2040 vision statement (see Part 2 of this series).
Keeping Austin’s growth boom going
The Austin area is now said to be adding 110 new residents per day. The Central Texas growth lobby seems to believe in the possibility of perpetual exponential growth as a sign of success, although their chart (below) conspicuously ignores Austin’s post-1980 boom and bust cycles.
As a city grows to the size of Austin, it tends to lose economy of scale and bumps into infrastructure limits, which for Austin are probably water, road capacity, and aggregate regional growth debt. At some point everyone knows the boom must end and, with it, real estate profits. In the past suburban developers have welcomed growth limits and higher taxes inside Austin as factors that helped to push growth toward the suburbs they want to develop. Such suburbanization policies still prevail at CAMPO.
Urban growth over time encounters limits that raise living costs. We can see this in Austin too. Austin is pretty clearly gentrifying, raising various taxes, making itself too expensive for low pay service workers to live close in, and becoming less competitive in its chosen role as a rapidly growing high tech hub. A downside here is that maintaining the economic health of the core city is vital to attracting growth to the region as a whole, including the suburbs.
As Austin has already had a chance to learn several times in recent decades, growth booms have lives of their own.
As Austin has already had a chance to learn several times in recent decades — with the 1980s S&L boom and the 1990s high tech bubble — growth booms have lives of their own. In order to prolong the current growth boom as long as possible, the growth lobby has accumulated a war chest of about $40 million, about twice what both sides spent in a recent governor’s race.
Thus we see new Austin-tatious cyber-journals cropping up: CultureMap Austin, Austin.com, and AustinTexas.org. They tirelessly proclaim Austin to be the coolest, best, and most perfect place that there ever was for young folks with useful job skills to move to, or at least to try to live near.
What shall we do about Austin’s water crisis?
As we have seen, federal transportation officials appear to be in no great hurry to enforce their own directives. Where then should the public turn for sound policy?
If it were up to me, which I would hasten to add that it is not, my political instinct tells me that now would be a good time to establish a new type of broad political coalition. A rural landowner coalition that links them to the Austin area taxpayers and environmentalists interested in a sane growth policy, and centered on key water issues. I don’t have a patent on this notion, but it seems to me that the political stage is set for something like this to develop on its own.
As Nate Blakeslee of Texas Monthly has noted (see Part 1), water wars are emerging over the legal right of suburban development interests in Hays County to pump cheap unregulated aquifer water to fast-growing urban areas. The archaic Texas right-of-capture water law encourages urban-rural conflicts between high-paying city dwellers and the rural users who critically depend on a supply of groundwater during dry spells for their survival.
Both rural landowners and urban area residents are vulnerable to political pressure from “the suits” representing development interests who seek binding agreements to shift the cost of future population growth onto existing residents.
Drew Scheberle, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Vice President, testified February 12, at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in a hearing attended by hundreds of Central Texas officials. He revealed the Central Texas growth lobby’s agenda when he spoke of the need of land developers to somehow get the increasingly scarce water now owned by rural downstream users:
Our job, on behalf of the five counties, is to sell central Texas to the world as the best place to do business. The water question has been creeping into more and more to our conversations [sic] and we’d hate for the word to get out that Texas doesn’t have its water issue under control.
Rural agricultural landowners on the one side and and city area dwellers and homeowners on the other share many goals in common. Both share a strong self-interest in sustainable growth. They share a common interest in slower growth, serious-as-a-heart-attack water conservation, and a reform of outdated water laws. Neither group has an interest in CAMPO’s plans for publicly funded water and road subsidies to meet the proposed future needs of Hays and Williamson County land developers 25 years from now.
Existing Austin area home owners should realize that — with years like 2011 becoming more common — in a few years it is likely that there will not be enough water to supply the existing Central Texas population of roughly 2 million. Even ignoring water, Austin and its vicinity have severe infrastructure problems, such as the nearly impossible-to-fix traffic congestion that TTI’s transportation planners describe (see Part 2).
Existing residents are already being hard hit by unsustainable, unregulated growth, which has raised Austin’s once low living costs so much that it is forcing many to leave. When the growth boom bubble finally bursts, and the sprawl growth pressures diminish, and the lawns start dying, a predictable outcome is that property values will decline, which means that the per capita county, city, and state tax burdens will increase. Without water, could Austin become a new Detroit?
Time will tell, but the way things are going right now, Austin seems to be headed toward serious water trouble, complicated by the politics of denial. It remains to be seen if the public will be successful in organizing in defense of sustainable water policy.
[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.]