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Dried Up: Texas Industry and Residents Square Off Over Water as Drought Continues

With nearly 65 percent of Texas experiencing exceptional drought, water is becoming increasingly precious—and scarce—in a state that has to divide the resource between the growing appetites of farmers, city residents, and energy corporations.

Texas Drought
Photo courtesy agrilifetoday via creative commons.
With the ongoing drought, many ponds in Texas, such as this one in Rusk County, were nearly dry by late June 2011. But not all ponds were depleted. This pond dried out prematurely because of poor construction — lack of a clay liner and limited drainage area. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo by Robert Burns)

A severe drought continues to wreak havoc in Texas and shows no sign of letting up, pitting stakeholders against each other as the dry spell threatens reservoirs and rivers.

The dry period began in October 2010, and, since then, only 2 inches of rain have fallen in southeastern Texas, Businessweek reported. Now, 65 percent of the state is categorized as having exceptional drought, and 88 percent is experiencing extreme drought conditions or worse, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Though Texas is no stranger to dry spells, this is the driest 7-month period in Texas history since record keeping began in the late 1800s. The worst drought is still considered to be the 10-year period from 1947-1957, with lake levels hitting an all time low in 1952. However, falling water levels could surpass even that record if no rains come. Currently, some lakes are dropping 35,000 acre-feet a week, The Texas Tribune reported.

City Residents vs. Farmers and Ranchers
With supplies running so low, city residents and businesses that depend on reservoir lakes for both their drinking water and livelihoods are worried that lakes will run dry if the agricultural industry downstream continues to consume large amounts, despite the drought. In Central Texas, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis—which supply the city of Austin with water and support a thriving tourist industry—are only 59 percent full and continuing to drop, The Texas Tribune reported. Much of the water from the lakes is being used downstream by farmers who are trying to protect their rice, a water-intensive crop, from the effects of the drought.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages the lakes and sells the water to both Austin and the rice farmers, allows farmers to buy the water at a cheaper price than the city because it retains the right to shut off supply in times of drought. However, while farmers have not had supplies cut, or even reduced, this year, Austin residents have been asked to conserve water, creating tensions between the two groups, according toThe Texas Tribune.

The drought is also dealing a heavy blow to cattle ranchers, who are sending large portions of their herds to slaughter because vegetation is so scarce.

“Because we’re not raising the amount of grass that we usually do, we’re having to destock these ranches,” rancher Pete Bonds told Reuters. “We are having to cut the numbers down and sell cows that we don’t want to. And since it is dry in a huge area, most of these cows are going to go to slaughter.” These include young female cows, called heifers, that are used to breed—putting a difficult barrier between the herd and its future.

Even if rains alleviate the current drought, the impacts will be lasting. Bonds told Reuters that it will take years for ranchers to recoup their losses, so many are giving up and selling their land to developers.

Farmers vs. Energy Executives
Texas energy corporations have resorted to buying water from farmers so they can support booming shale gas operations. The water is needed for hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” the process of injecting water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure into sedimentary rock formations to free up the oil and natural gas trapped inside.

In 2009, there were 358 natural gas drilling rigs in Texas alone, and that number had increased to 709 rigs by 2010, according to the Natural Gas Supply Association. Each rig can drill multiple wells in a year and each well typically uses upwards of 19,000 cubic meters (5 million gallons) of water for “fracking.”

The Eagle Ford Shale formation, however, which angles across the state from the southwest to the northeast and is the location of many new shale gas wells, has an unusual geology that requires more water per well than in other locations. A single well in the Eagle Ford Shale can require up to 49,000 cubic meters (13 million gallons), Businessweek reported. To obtain this amount during the drought, companies have offered farmers as much as $US 0.70 per barrel of water—equivalent to 164 liters (42 gallons).

So far, farmers have been reluctant to sell too much water, especially when they are running low on supplies to quench their own thirsty fields.

Additionally, because of the severe drought in Texas, water supplies have become a big issue for opponents of a coal-fired power plant proposed for Matagorda County. On June 16, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) delayed a vote to decide whether to sell more than 30 million cubic meters (8 billion gallons) of water per year to the owners of the planned White Stallion generating station.

“This delay is a victory for those opposing the coal plant and a step in the right direction in convincing the LCRA that this project is not a beneficial or responsible use of water from the Colorado River Basin,” Ryan Rittenhouse wrote in an article for TexasVox, an online publication of Public Citizen in Texas.

Populations in Texas cities continue to explode, and, in the energy sector, water use is expected to increase to 10 times the current amount by 2020, Bloomberg reported, setting the stage for further debates over who gets to use what water—and when.

Sources: The Texas Tribune, U.S. Drought Monitor, BusinessWeek, Reuters, Bloomberg


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