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”:

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-postJR: 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.