Point Austin: When the Well Runs Dry

While our leaders fiddle, the land is burning

Point Austin

The affable voice of Greg Meszaros seems not the likeliest harbinger of doom.

But there was the director of Austin Water last week at the City Council meeting, informing the mayor and council members that the current Central Texas drought is not simply a rough patch of bad weather – but soon about to become the Worst Drought Ever. This is not your father's drought, or even your grandfather's, Mes­zar­os told his official audience. "This is, in my opinion, the worst drought we've faced in Central Texas, ever."

Those of us who have watched our yards, gardens, and trees scorched to extinction are no longer exactly surprised when we're told that times are bad, and the regional drought has persisted so long now that it's being described as the "new normal." But it seemed particularly grim news coming from the fellow assigned to maintain the city water services; he did not mince words, and he described increasingly dire scenarios, including the possibility that absent any period of sustained rain over the next few years, we could be looking at the effective extinction of the Highland Lakes.

Meszaros focused much of his scheduled briefing on the drought's effects on lakes Buchanan and Travis, which are the primary water reserves of the region and not simply decorative or recreational. This year is likely to be the second lowest inflow year for the lakes, and the numbers themselves are imposing. In the lowest year, 2011, the lakes received just under 128,000 acre-feet of water; by contrast the average annual inflow from 1942 to 2012 had been 1.2 million acre-feet. Since March of 2008, the cumulative inflow has been running about a third of that in the Fifties – during the previous drought of record.

These gross estimates of how bad things are quickly earned everyone's attention. Then Meszaros turned to how bad things might get. He said it's virtually certain that we'll get to Stage 3 drought conditions in the next few weeks or months (when lake storage drops below 600,000 acre-feet, or 31% capacity), meaning more mandatory cutbacks in usage, and probably Lower Colo­rado River Authority mandates of a 20% reduction in regional water use. And if current conditions (and regional water policies) persist over the next few years – and only very broad and not necessarily recurrent historical weather patterns of eventual rainfall suggest otherwise – it's possible the lakes could dry up entirely by 2018.

Heat Wave

It was a sobering presentation, to say the least, though Meszaros acknowledged that he was describing "worst-case" scenarios to allow for contingency planning. The second half of his talk recounted the responses planned or under consideration, but it's worth noting that they still depend – almost inaudibly – on the drought eventually coming to an end.

So we all hope. By not entirely a coincidence, Meszaros' briefing for Council followed by a few days the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international scientific group that has been monitoring the causes and effects of global warming. The IPCC report (its first since 2007) was the most dire and the most conclusive yet, in that it presents "95% certainty" – i.e., about as certain as anything on Earth – that "anthropogenic influence" (i.e., CO2 emissions generated by people) has been the dominant cause of global warming since the mid 20th century. That's good news as well as bad – if we're creating the problem, presumably we can take steps to alleviate it – but the report is also frank in acknowledging the seriousness of our predicament.

Specifically, the last 30 years have likely been the warmest of the previous 1,400 years; and if we were somehow in short order to mitigate our emissions to zero ... the global temperature reached at that moment is likely to persist for centuries. ("Most aspects of climate change," reads the report, "will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped.") Among the many observable effects of this climate change, in the shorter term, is that wetter regions are likely to become wetter and regularly subject to more powerful storms. And drier regions are likely to become drier.

Praying for Rain

Austin has historically been somewhere in the middle of that atmospheric line, scorched with dryness by the desert west, irregularly deluged with tropical storms from the east. The old saw that in Texas, it never rains but it pours, may seem even more true in the coming years. Meszaros told Council that regional officials are planning any and every possible form of mitigation, including broader conservation, tightening restrictions on usage, yet -to-be-determined drought water rates, alternative sources (groundwater, reclaimed water, etc.) and politically more contentious steps – like ending the truly massive water releases currently dedicated to downstream rice farming.

None of these responses is a magic bullet, and all require trade-offs that will inevitably pit one public interest against another. One would like to think that our quasi-democratic political system would empower us as a community to address the natural and man-made crises that lie before us. But looking around at the regional, state, and federal institutions currently charged with confronting and resolving such matters – and considering the literal domination of those institutions by reactionary and science-denying politicians, for whom even the words "global warming" are officially as unspeakable as "Voldemort" – I can't find much reason for optimism.

Maybe they'll miss our water ... when the wells finally run dry.

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Austin Water, Austin City Council, Lower Colorado River Authority, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change, global warming

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