High and dry
As expected, the board of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has voted to declare a critical stage drought for areas of Travis and Hays counties. The declaration comes on the heels of several notable water shortages, such as the drying of Jacob's Well and water problems plaguing most family farms in the region.
This is only the second time in the BS/EACD's 21-year history that a critical stage drought has been declared. Rainfall at Camp Mabry this year has been 17 inches below average, with other areas in the watershed even lower. The district has been under the less severe alarm stage drought since June 23, requiring a 20% reduction of groundwater pumping. The latest drought level calls for a 30% reduction. Some 60,000 groundwater users are expected be affected.
"From a climatological perspective," said John Dupnik, a hydrologist for the BS/EACD, "this is the fourth driest year on record, and it's the driest year since 1957, which was the peak of the drought of record. So that puts some context behind it." Dupnik said that water management is generally based upon the 1950s drought – what he called a "perfect storm" for a drought. Fifty years ago, consecutive seasons of below-average rainfall resulted in the persistent reduction of water levels and flow for Barton Springs. "The worst-case scenario is we have this really dry year, aquifer levels are low, and instead of getting the spring rain that we normally do, we see another really dry period before we go into summer, when we expect it to be dry." Consecutive years with below-average rainfall and no replenishment of the aquifer going into the summer was, says Dupnik, "the scenario we fear the most."
The U.S. Drought Monitor, a meteorological drought index, currently places Travis and Hays counties in an "exceptional drought," its most dire rating. The two counties are effectively in the middle of a regional bull's eye, with "extreme drought" plaguing surrounding counties.
The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center has even worse news for the Hill Country – the current drought is expected to continue through 2009, when it will "persist or intensify." And of course, compounding the problem is the increased pumping from the Edwards Aquifer – there's now eight to 10 times as much pumping as there was during the drought of record.