Population flight from growing desert of central Texas

Brad Johnson, in a WonkRoom cross-post

The state of Texas will be adding four congressional districts due to significant population growth. My colleague Matt Yglesias writes that it’s “fascinating to learn from the Census Bureau that even amidst 20 percent population growth, huge swathes of the state are actually losing people. The result is a state becoming radically less rural as remote areas decline in population while central cities and (especially) suburbs boom at an incredible rate”:

Texas population shift

One of the major reasons that there’s such a radical population shift is that central Texas is changing from arid grassland to uninhabitable desert, in part due to greenhouse pollution from the fossil fuels once buried under the ground. Other unsustainable practices, such as overpumping of groundwater, unregulated sprawl, and poor conservation practices are accelerating the desertification. The region has been in a drought since 1995-1996, with brief respites in 2007 and 2010 from catastrophic, flooding rains:

1996: “In Texas, losses to the agricultural industry exceeded $2.1 billion; statewide losses exceeded $5 billion.”

1998: “Without substantial rains, this year’s drought may be a worse disaster for Texas agriculture than the severe drought of 1996.”

2002: “Texas ranchers feel drought sting.”

2003: “Central Texas is in the midst of a seven-year drought.”

2005: “It’s been dry, it is dry, and it will likely stay dry through the winter, according to the state’s climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon based at Texas A&M University’s College of Geosciences.”

2006: “Texas’ drought losses have reached an estimated $4.1 billion, eclipsing the $2.1 billion mark set in 1998, according to Texas Cooperative Extension economists.”

2008: “Lack of rain and scorching temperatures hit Texas’ agricultural crops and beef operations hard late spring and summer, leading to an estimated $1.4 billion in drought losses, Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists reported.”

2009: “The most severe drought this part of Texas has ever seen means grazing pastures have dried up. Throughout central Texas, lake levels have fallen as much as 30 feet below normal, fields are cracking, and in some places half the cotton, corn and sorghum crops have withered away. Texas officials estimate losses are already at $3.6 billion and rising. . . . Over the past two months, Austin has sweltered through 19 days above 100 degrees. And rainfall is 20 inches below normal. ”

2011: “Deteriorating conditions in Texas and Oklahoma led to increased drought severity this week. In addition to the widespread wildfires in the region, impacts from agricultural areas are starting to be reported in counties along the Red River that illustrate the extreme nature of drought.”

This is just a taste of Texas’ future. “Triple-digit temperatures will be the norm in Texas within a few decades, and 115-degree heat won’t be surprising,” according to the state climatologist.

— Brad Johnson, in a WonkRoom cross-post

JR:  A 2010 study found that virtually all of Texas will be at high or extreme risk of climate-induced water shortage and drought in 2050:

Here’s more from Texas A&M University atmospheric sciences professor John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist:

“Decade by decade it’s been getting warmer,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “From here going forward, if temperatures keep rising as the models project they will, it will certainly be in large part due to global warming.”

Two unusually warm summers “” in South Texas in 2009 and North Texas this year “” are signs of what’s ahead, he said.

A recent Texas A&M University news release said the heat could bring water shortages, more severe droughts, crop failures and more difficulty controlling air pollution. Farmers will need to irrigate more….

Bruce McCarl, an agricultural economist at A&M who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore and hundreds of other members of the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, said the higher temperatures in decades ahead could reduce the amount of land that can be used for farming. He predicted a 25% decrease in acres for crops and 10% less for livestock.

The heat “reduces the grass growth so it reduces the number of animals you can graze,” he said.

And the heat will further deplete Texas’ aquifers, McCarl said.

“It would be pretty hard after 20 or 30 years to have enough (water) for agriculture,” he said. “The issue is if it gets warmer you’re likely to have increased irrigation needs to grow the same amount.”

Of course, moving to the coast line isn’t even a medium-term solution for Texans either:

It is mitigate or move for most Texans in the next few decades.

20 Responses to Population flight from growing desert of central Texas

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Texas culture is disappearing, too. In the cities, nice old brick buildings and small businesses have been replaced by a sea of fast food restaurants and shopping malls. They don’t even bother to fake the urban cowboy thing anymore. Gruen and the Hill Country are still kind of cool, but they’re increasingly becoming tourist traps for SUV driving families from Dallas and San Antonio.

    Years ago I had to pick up a kid at the end of the school day in an elementary school in San Antonio. There was a line two blocks long of moms in their trucks and SUV’s, waiting patiently to go to the front of the line at the school entrance. I learned later that they were too fat to walk up to the entrance to pick up their kids.

    When there are food shortages and prohibitively expensive gas, Texas will be a good barometer, because we will see rage and violence. They’ll probably blame the agricultural crash on Mexicans and liberals.

  2. Prokaryotes says:

    Whammy Whammy Whammy

  3. Leif says:

    I cannot imagine that the resale value of all the equity that those folks are forced to abandon can be helping the economy much. But hay, as long as it is just the variance of Nature, it is “someone else’s problem”, (SEPs).
    Pump those hydrocarbons, “Drill Baby, Drill”…

  4. S. Majumder says:

    In Bangalore (India), the water crisis is so grave that people have stated to bathe in mineral water. Water crisis is like the canary in the coal mine. And it is currently suffocating.

  5. Peter M says:

    It shall be interesting to see how long Texas grows in population to gain congressional seats in the future.

    If parts of the state are already reverting to desert, what will happen in 2020, or 2030? It seems likely that desertification is likely to spread eastward to places like San Marcos, Austin, Dallas-Ft Worth.

    Climate models certainly predict this- and the area was desert in the Pliocene 3.5 million years ago.

  6. Peter M says:

    Above- years should read 2020 or 2030?

    But to add, the demographic trends of the last century where the ‘Great Migration to the Sunbelt’ which was for me as a Geography major in the 70s the great demographic shift.

    Can that even conceivably continue much longer? Seems to me that migration is going to hit a brick wall- and soon. In years ahead demographers. geographers and socialists will discuss the great migration ‘out’ of the sunbelt.

    Stay tuned-

  7. John McCormick says:

    Dallas is approximate latitude of Rabat, capitol of Morocco.

    Expansion of the tropical zone. Sounds about right.

    Texas is drying out.

    John McCormick

  8. MarkF says:

    what animals are displaced and what animals if any are moving into these abandoned areas?

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Wit’s End #7, I liked the comment on that blog that it would be a good idea to ‘terraform’ the earth first. If we survive that will be the task for the next few hundred years-restoring the natural world. As for Texas, yet another prediction of climate science coming true, more or less. The situation is dire in northern Mexico too, fueling flight to the cities and over the border to Gringoland. The mass movements of climate destabilisation refugees are just beginning. The war to oust Gaddafi will have the ‘unforeseen’ consequence of opening a route for desperate Africans, economic and climate refugees, right into Europe. Gaddafi had clamped down, in return for ‘reparations’ for the previous episode of European colonialism (Italian).Unfortunately the rag-tag mob of emigres, tribal malcontents, Islamists and regime renegades now being imposed as the ‘Libyan people’ in the east, would have trouble organising a piss-up in a brewery.

  10. O Perkins says:

    This is a little bit misleading. I have a home in the middle of the “yellow” area on the top map, near the TX/OK border. This is the area losing population. It’s relatively dry, but the rainfall there is about average the last few years.

    When people refer to “Central Texas” they usually mean the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio and the Hill Country west of there. That’s where the prolonged “drought” exists, but the population there is increasing rapidly.

    I have another home in Austin. It is night and day different there from the place up northwest. It’s different in culture, economy, politics, climate, and most definitely population growth. I doubt anyone looking at the countryside there would characterize it as “desertification”, and yet the below average rainfall is threatening both aquifers and flora. The area is home to millions of acres of centuries-old live oak tress, but they are being severely stressed by the drought.

    Texas is a big place. Generalizations, practically any generalization, is likely to be a bit right and a bit wrong.

  11. gofer says:

    “Texas was a land known for its repeated dry spells, but it had never seen anything like the drought of the 1950s. From 1950 to 1957, Texas baked under the most severe drought in recorded history. The total rainfall was off by 40%, and excessive high summer temperatures made the situation that much worse. In one year, 1952, Lubbock did not record even a trace of rain for the entire year.

    The drought devastated Texas agriculture and greatly affected lakes and reservoirs. For example, Lake Dallas fell to an astounding 11% of capacity.”

    Texas State Library & Archives

  12. Karl says:

    Isn’t this kind of thing going on throughout the great plains – smaller family farms get swallowed up by larger industrial scale farms, producing depopulation in those former farming communities. I’d like to see how much of this was actually due to a decline in the viability of farming, and how much was just the continued industrialization of the food production business. It may just the agricultural parallel of what happened to our industrial base – some out sourcing, and a lot of automation and productivity, killed these industries as large sources of employment.

  13. A face in the clouds says:

    Always feel like someone stepped over my grave when the drought of 1995-96 is mentioned. I spent a good deal of the period doing weather-related historical research throughout much of Texas, and will always remember how unnatural that drought looked and felt. A subsequent press report did claim that a large percentage of the state’s native vegetation became extinct during the drought. The report was attributed to the state but, as so very often happens down here, the official report along with any knowledge of it vanished at the Texas Capitol.

    If one wishes to understand just how hard the weather and climate have gotten down here since 1995-96, then remember that even the Labor Day heat wave of 2000 has already become a distant memory. Hardcore football fans may recall its signature moment at Texas Stadium, just prior to the 3 pm kickoff of the Dallas-Philadelphia game on September 3. I recall it was a sideline reporter for CBS who held up a thermometer for the national audience, and it read 180 degrees.

    @ MarkF #9 — In recent years, emergency rooms in and around Austin have reported a dramatic rise in rattlesnake bites, especially in new developments. Lot of pets being bitten too. Coyotes and the occasional fox have also been making off with an increasing number of cats and small dogs. Deer and feral hogs are creating considerable property damage. Surprised more motorists haven’t been injured.

    @ O Perkins #11 — Might add that both Waco and Brady, located 130 miles southwest, claim to be “The Heart of Texas.” In fact, so does Brownwood, 100 miles northwest of Waco.

    One last thing: I was born in Lubbock in 1952 and it did rain that year. Not much, but some did fall. I looked up the report a few years back when family members who had heard of it naturally began to blame me for the entire 7-plus year drought. I celebrated the good news by taking a bath.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    “A Shifting Band of Rain” By Julian P. Sachs and Conor L. Myhrvold | March 7, 2011, Scientific American, has graphics about the movement of the rain band (ITCZ, InterTropical Convergence Zone) and some mention of newly created drought areas.

  15. Adrian says:

    Here’s a relevant link about aquifer depletion and population decline from The Telegraph, dated 3/7/11, which puts the issue in human terms:

  16. Dallasm says:

    Ok, not correct analysis. At all. Not even close. Not even in the same state.

    The reason those areas have been loosing people is the same reason rural areas across the country have been loosing population for decades. The reason is that there are more and better jobs in the city.

    This one has nothing to do with Global warming.

    Please don’t do this again. It only gives the deniers ammunition.

  17. Les Johnson says:

    Not much drought in Texas. The last 2 years have been slightly above average in precipitation. You have to go back to 1988 to break the top 10 driest years (9th).

    The 50s were the worst, in terms of length and depth of drought.

    Input Texas for state, years 1895-2011, select Data Type “precipitation” instead of “temperature”, Period = “annual” and the trend over the last 115 years is positive.

    The temperature trend in Texas over the 115 years is 0.0 deg per decade.

    The precipitation trend from 1970 and 1980 is positive, but negative from 1990 and 2000. However, the last 2 years have been above the 1901-2000 average.

  18. Les Johnson says:

    “lies, damn lies and statistics”.

    If you go to the Census web site with the map above, through Yglesias, you find that the loss in population is sometimes only a few hundred in a county, over the last 50 years. I calculate about 100,000 people left north Texas, since 1960. This works out to about 60 people per county per year.

    Most of the losses occurred since 1960. There has been a fraction of the losses since 2000. The later losses are much lower, in number and per cent.

    If you look at maps of other rural states, you find higher rates of losses. North Dakota looks like it should be vacant, according to the color of the map. The losing counties show losses of 30% to 50% of 1960 population, and the vast majority of counties show losing counties.

    Did anyone at CP or the Wonk room actually bother to check?

  19. Les Johnson says:

    Ok, now, lets look at Amarillo, Texas, right in the middle of the supposed new forming desert.

    Since 1948 (start of NCDC records), Amarillo has seen an increase of 0.03 degrees per decade in Temperature, and a decrease in rainfall of 0.05 inches per decade.

    Of course, the last 5 years, rain fall has been just near average, or above average.

    In other words, based on temperature and rainfall, there is no significant climate change occurring in the center of Texas since 1948.