Water-Gate: Texas State Report on Dealing with Current and Future Drought Never Mentions Climate Change

Texas Comptroller water-planning report also fails to brings up the growing role of natural gas fracking

Ironically, the cover of a major Texas report on drought and water planning points out that it’s been “dry” and “hot” and implies humans have some control over the state’s thermostat.  But the report is silent on human contribution to the heat and drought now and in the future — and is thus dangerously misleading as a planning document.

Can a state devastated by its most severe hot-weather drought on record actually release a water-planning report on the future of drought in Texas that never mentions global warming?  Sadly, the answer is yes in the case of “The Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond,” by Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

The state’s climate science denial, led by Denier-In-Chief Rick Perry, is much more than purely rhetorical in nature. It is leaving the residents of Texas wholly unprepared for what is to come, including the devastation of much of the state’s agriculture, as this report unintentionally makes clear.

Texas A&M University, professor of atmospheric sciences, Dr. Andrew Dessler, writes me:

This report is consistent with the Texas State Government’s position of ‘See no climate change, hear no climate change, speak no climate change.’ The report goes out of its way to try to suggest that the recent drought was entirely due to natural cycles, but that is an untenable scientific position.  Given how much carbon we’ve loaded into the atmosphere, the question is not whether humans are affecting the Texas weather, but exactly how.  I’m sorry the report let politics trump science.”

The state has already worked to censor efforts to inform citizens on its coast of the impact of warming-driven sea level rise — see Flood-Gate: Perry Officials Try to Hide Sea Level Rise from Texans with “Clear-Cut Unadulterated Censorship.”

But this new report is much worse since it bills itself as a planning report for the whole state on its most crucial problem — water:

As Comptroller, one of my responsibilities is to analyze trends that affect the state’s bottom line. And the terrible drought of 2011 underlined a particularly important factor that could have far-reaching impacts on Texas’ growth and prosperity.

Our water resources are finite. Planning for and managing our water use is perhaps the most important task facing Texas policymakers in the 21st century.

My office is pleased to present Gauging the Economic Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond, which discusses the current drought and its impacts on the state; current and future water resources in Texas; and innovative solutions governments in Texas and elsewhere are using to solve the water crisis.

The current drought is the worst single-year Texas drought since record-keeping began — and it may prove to be one of most devastating economic events in our history. Estimates by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service put Texas agricultural losses for the year at $5.2 billion. A December economic analysis by BBVA Compass Bank found that indirect drought losses to the state’s agricultural industries could add another $3.5 billion to the toll….

Drought is an ever-present concern in many parts of the state, leading to pressure on our water infrastructure. According to the Texas Water Development Board [TWDB], demand for water will rise by 22 percent by 2060. The board says that, should we experience another multi-year “drought of record” such as that of the 1950s, it could cost Texas businesses and workers $116 billion in income by 2060.

Obviously the Comptroller doesn’t really believe that planning for and managing water use could be the most important task facing Texas policymakers — or else her report on the subject would take the subject more seriously and have significant discussions of two key factors, manmade climate change and hydraulic fracking.

Natural gas hydraulic fracturing is perhaps the thirstiest new source of water consumption in the state (see here). The TWDB projects total water usage for fracking statewide was 13.5 billion gallons in 2010 and will likely more than double by 2020. In one District west of Fort Worth, “the share of groundwater used by frackers was 40% in the first half of 2011, up from 25% in 2010.” It is inconceivable one could do serious water planning in Texas without an analysis of the impact of fracking. Yet the report says nothing whatsoever about fracking except to put it in a long list of ways one could use treated wastewater.

Many, many recent studies make clear that global warming will be among the biggest drivers of drought and water-related problems in Texas and the rest of the South-West in the coming decades.  In 2007, Science (subs. req’d) published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” — levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California.

A 2010 literature review and analysis from the National Center for Atmospheric Research [NCAR], “Drought under global warming” warned:

The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decadespossibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.

Another 2010 study warned the U.S. southwest could see a 60-year drought like that of 12th century — only hotter — this century:

An unprecedented combination of heat plus decades of drought could be in store for the Southwest sometime this century, suggests new research from a University of Arizona-led team….

“The bottom line is, we could have a Medieval-style drought with even warmer temperatures,” [lead author Connie] Woodhouse said.

But the Texas water planning report has nothing to say about global warming. It selectively quotes state Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon at length on the causes of 2011’s shortfall in precipitation. It doesn’t offer even one of the numerous statements by scientists about the impact of record heat on this drought, including Nielsen-Gammon himself, who said, “There is evidence that global warming has had an effect on the drought, primarily by increasing the surface temperature, which increases the drought severity by increasing evaporation and water stress, and by decreasing stream flow and water supply.”

The report itself notes, “drought and unprecedented heat made 2011 the worst year for wildfires in Texas history” — but again is silent on how humans contribute to the unprecedented heat and the ever worsening wildfire seasons.

The report does point out that Texas has been hit by extremely severe droughts in the past:

“In the 12th century CE, for instance, much of the Southwest suffered through a decades-long drought; another in the second century CE lasted for nearly 50 years. These “megadroughts” appear to be infrequent but regular occurrences in our part of the world.”

But if we keep listening to the climate science deniers like those running Texas and take no action to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, then these mega-droughts are projected to become so frequent that they may simply become the state’s natural climatology.  And unlike medieval times, things will just get worse and worse and hotter and hotter for a long, long time — see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe.

The report does spell out the grim future and “tremendous social changes” in a “Megadrought” it calls “a true worst-case scenario,” but which, tragically, is just business-as-usual for the state on our current emissions trajectory:

Say that Texas receives half of its “normal” average annual rainfall, 13 inches or so, for two decades. Our semi-tropical regions would become arid, while our semi-arid regions would become desert. This situation would create tremendous social changes.

Texas agriculture would change dramatically, and might end in some areas. Drip irrigation and other techniques pioneered in desert areas would become essential.
■ Remaining agriculture might become dependent on “water markets,” in which the rights to draw groundwater are bought and sold.
■ Food prices, particularly beef prices, would increase significantly.
■ Turf grass lawns and all outside watering might be banned.
Low-flow water appliances would become mandatory.
■ Wastewater would become quite valuable, and would be reclaimed for reuse in irrigation and perhaps treated to make it suitable for human consumption.
■ Desalination of brackish (salty) groundwater and seawater would become common, at first for industrial and agricultural uses and then for drinking water.
Utility rates could be expected to skyrocket due to the increased expense of water obtained through desalination or reuse, and the higher costs faced by energy plants that rely on water for cooling.

That’s just part of what Texas needs to start planning for — but it does underscore the point that failing to act on global warming guarantees massive government intrusion in our lives.

That is just the drought without the heat. When you add in the heat, it gets even worse — see NASA’s Hansen: “If We Stay on With Business as Usual, the Southern U.S. Will Become Almost Uninhabitable.”

This chart is from the NCAR model, which factors the heat in with the aridity in projecting soil moisture around the world (click to enlarge, “a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought”):

drought map 3 2060-2069

The PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).

The large-scale pattern shown in Figure 11 [of which the figure above is part] appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11, a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.

NCAR notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”

This is Texas:

The NCAR study merely models the IPCC’s “moderate” A1B scenario — atmospheric concentrations of CO2 around 520 ppm in 2050 and 700 in 2100.  We’re currently on the A1F1 pathway — and we’d certainly stay on that path if it were left up to the folks running Texas — which would takes us to 1000 ppm by century’s end.

In a 2010 presentation, Texas Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe has a figure of what the A1FI would mean temperature-wise:

As I wrote in my recent Nature piece on dust-bowlification and the grave threat it poses to food security, the very word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin desertum for ‘an abandoned place’. That’s what Texans will ultimately have to plan for if the country continues to embrace their preferred strategy of denial and inaction.

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17 Responses to Water-Gate: Texas State Report on Dealing with Current and Future Drought Never Mentions Climate Change

  1. Scott says:

    Way to go, Ms. Combs. Let’s keep pretending.

  2. Peter says:

    520ppm by 2050 will be enough in time to melt most of the planets ice- it will turn most of the USA interior into a desert from the Gulf of Mexico north to Cleveland. And Texas?

    We should be near 1 degree C above the PI level by 2022- any guesses what the US will be experiencing in 10 years?

  3. ozajh says:

    “The 2011 drought”. Ha!!

    As an Australian, I can assure you that the first year of a drought is basically irrelevant, because of various man-made and natural buffers. It’s the second and third years that really hurt.

    Wikipedia has a good article on water restrictions in Australia. You might want to check out the section on Queensland, noting that “Toowoomba, Brisbane and South East Queensland” is collectively more than half the population of the state. That area was at stage 6 for many months during the summer of 2007/08, with a pile of rules: no sprinklers, no hosing, no watering of lawns, 3 specified periods a week for bucket watering of non-lawn garden plants, bucket cleaning of automobile glass only, formal government approval needed for filling pools and so on.

    Kingaroy, which is by Australian standards a regional city, was at stage 7. This, in contrast to the other stages, has very simple rules. “No external water use without permit.”

  4. Sam says:

    Isn’t this a wide-open opportunity to the the media to report on the omission?

  5. Sam says:

    Sorry, I meant: Isn’t this a wide-open opportunity to get the media to report on the omission?

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Texans don’t want to hear about no stinking global warming. They all wallow in oil, and it’s oozing from their pores. Don’t worry, when it hits 120 degrees with 75% humidity in Dallas, they will skedaddle to their flat screens, watching television all day. The newscaster will blame the hot weather on gay marriage and the socialists not allowing us to do enough drilling.

    It’s a writeoff. Same for Oklahoma, Arizona, and Georgia. Let them secede and form their own confederation, whose economy will depend on producing reality shows about swamp dwellers, to supplement refining petroleum and savaging Eastern forests. These are chump economies. The rest of us can do better.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    This is so pathetic.

  8. Paul Magnus says:

    Pathetic and criminally neglegant!

  9. Paul Magnus says:

    Our future…. Dry, swampy and burnt with very little in between.

  10. BillD says:

    In most states, environmental plans and reports are usually written, at least in part, by professors from instate universities. Was a person who seems to be the “state financial accountant” really the author of this report? I can see that financial issues shoud be considered, but not to the exclusion of science.

  11. Bill Goedecke says:

    I gather that the Texas comptroller position is highly political and it has to do with budget priorities, not with science. Although it would be nice if the report dealt with the science behind it, it really is not in the purview of the position. The person has to negotiate priorities with other players in the political arena and probably wants to keep the report as apolitical as possible, I would imagine. The governor really needs to take the lead – something not possible, it seems, with Mr. Perry. But he could elevate those involved in the science so that they can have the political capital to support budgetary priorities.

  12. Wendy Gordon says:

    As a resident of Texas, someone who does climate change research, and someone who has spent much of my career working for the state agencies, I have to take issue with at least one item in this posting. If you look at the research done on the southwestern US, Texas does not fall within those maps. Places like NM, AZ, UT and CO do, but Texas does not. Maybe Far West Texas occasionally shows up. So it is disingenuous to lump Texas with the prognostications about the SW. Yes, there are tree-ring data that support previous, intense droughts. Some of those data suggest the 1700s and other centuries saw worse droughts than we saw in the 1950s. There are not yet tree-ring data from the current drought with which to make comparisons.

  13. Barry Saxifrage says:

    The Texas drought was “caused” by global warming according to Hansen and others at NASA.

    The data in his recent paper “The New Climate Dice” shows how the probability of the Russia heat wave and Texas/Oklahoma droughts happening in a pre-global-warming climate is effectively zero. These events were more than 3 standard deviations (aka “extreme heat”) from historical climate. That’s like a 700-year event or rarer.

    But not anymore. Global warming has shifted the distribution curve of temperatures for these regions so much that an event that was only 0.1% likely in the past has become 10% likely today. 700-year events are becoming 10-year events.

    The heat in texas last summer is no longer very unusual in the new temperature distribution curve. And that curve is still shifting. If Texas were to suffer a 700-year event now it would be outside their imagining.

    This is why you can’t plan for the future if you don’t consider the shifting temperature distribution curve. But to do that you have to acknowledge and act on global warming science and data. You can’t prepare based on what has come before…

  14. Barry Saxifrage says:

    Let’s use a gambling analogy: playing weather roulette.

    In past decades a third of slots on the roulette wheel were red (warmer than normal); a third were white (normal); and a third were blue (colder than normal). Governments, biz and citizens bet their infrastructure dollars on the probability that red will come up a third of the time.

    But direct temperature measurements show the wheel now is almost TWO thirds red. If you are betting on “normal white” or “cold blue” and expecting them to happen like they used to, you will lose big.

    Not only that, but most of the extra red that has been added to the roulette wheel is actually bright red (“extreme heat”). In fact the casino has had to create entire new shades of bright red because the temperatures are outside anything ever seen in that area. If the ball lands on one of these new bright red spots and you didn’t bet on it, you lose double or triple your money.

    If Texas is trying to figure out where to bet their dollars without factoring in the changing colors on the roulette wheel they are going to lose big.

  15. Michael L Farrey says:

    Why don’t you build your selves some water pipe lines or is all you think about is oil pipelines? Solar powered pumping and desalinization stations could also be a green energy surplus.

  16. a face in the clouds says:

    Combs is just another career politician climbing the ladder in Texas. She looks good on paper (which gives rise to questions about Social Promotion at Vassar and the UT law school) but she somehow didn’t notice things going wrong from her bird’s eye view as agriculture commissioner between 1998-2006.
    Under Combs’ watch as state comptroller, the self-proclaimed super hero of transparency also failed to notice that a treasure trove of state property (including a large cache of weapons) has gone missing. When it was brought to her attention by an Austin television station, a spokesman responded by reaffirming Combs’ dedication to being against stealing stuff.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They’ve given up reporting the sins of emission, ie greenhouse gases and consequent climate change, so their own sins of omission make it seem overwhelmingly likely that they will politely turn a blind eye to politicians’ sins of omission. They wouldn’t want to look like hypocrites, would they?