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Zerrenner: Texas is nearly out of this drought, but not in the clear

As a native Austinite, I remember the historic Memorial Day flood of 1981. I was a little kid, and the storm was so intense I asked my mom if I could sleep in her bed. I remember seeing pictures of grand pianos from Strait Music and cars floating down Lamar Boulevard. Although Austin has changed a lot since then, the pictures of a flooded Lamar this Memorial Day were eerily similar.

In Texas, we are used to cycles of drought and flood; we know extreme weather just as we know extreme personalities and politics. But the natural dynamics are changing, and we can no longer rely on a “rain bomb” to get us out of the next drought. Make no mistake, the next drought is around the corner, and Texas can start to conserve water now by urgently pursuing clean energy and better planning between the energy and water sectors.

This year’s floods essentially brought an end to a multiyear drought, though a few areas are still considered in mild drought. The last drought Texas saw of this magnitude was in the 1950s. My great-grandfather had to sell his boat because there was no water in Lake Travis, much like my dad had to sell his boat this time around. And, in both 1957 and 2015, then came the rain. Yet, the circumstances are not the same.

In 1957, Texas had a population of 9 million. Today, there are nearly 27 million people in Texas and the population could double by 2050. Austin is often ranked as the fastest-growing city in the country, and growth may exceed 80 percent by 2030.

Now let’s think about the changing climate. There is not yet enough data to say for sure whether climate change caused this current drought-flood cycle, but future droughts must now be considered alongside the dire predictions of future climate models. The drought cycles, in particular, appear to be more intense under climate change. As John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas’ state climatologist, has said, “We certainly know climate change is going to make temperatures warmer, make evaporation more intense and increase water demand for plants and agriculture. Model-based analyses show some pretty nasty increases in drought intensity.”

So, whether climate change is at the root of the extreme weather isn’t necessarily the point. Katharine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Center, put it well: “Just like steroids make a baseball player stronger, climate change exacerbates many of our weather extremes, making many of them, on average, worse than they would have been naturally.”

The bottom line is: Texas got a reprieve, but that doesn’t let the state off the hook from being mindful about water availability. Population growth and higher temperatures increase demand for both water and water-intensive electricity.

Thoughtful planning is key, and considering where we can be more efficient in our water use is essential. Here are a few ways Texas can start harnessing existing technology and resources to protect our water supply:

  • Transition away from water-intensive energy resources like coal and toward low or no water-use resources like solar and wind power and energy efficiency. Texas has the potential to save more than 22 million gallons of water per year in the power sector alone by moving away from coal, a trend that is already occurring.
  • Use clean energy for energy- and water-intensive water solutions, such as desalination and moving and treating water. Following the legislative session in Texas, we are one step closer to using renewable energy for desalinating brackish groundwater.
  • Increase coordination between planning for the energy and water sectors. Better communication and integration between the two would help identify efficiencies and could reduce costs while increasing reliability for both.
  • Give customers better access to their usage through smart water meters. Pecan Street Inc., the innovative smart electric grid demonstration project in Austin, includes a water component that will test technologies in communities in Texas and other Western states. These will help customers pinpoint where they can save the most water, as well as help utilities improve tracking and design incentives to improve conservation.

We have avoided the worst outcomes from drought this time around, but the stability of our future water supply is still threatened. We Texans have never been ones for half-measures, so why don’t we tackle our water issues with the same extreme nature we’re known for in politics and personality?

Zerrenner is project manager, U.S. climate and energy, at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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