The Austin Chronicle

It’s Gonna Be a Long, Hot Summer – Again

City and county brace for drought, wildfire season

By Lina Fisher, May 24, 2024, News

In its May update, the National Weather Service predicted that El Niño conditions, which have been giving us a milder and wetter spring, will likely transition to La Niña by June-August 2024. Translation: La Niña means more dry heat, compounding the Hill Country’s climate change-related drought that shocked the region into Stage 4 drought for the first time ever last December. Unfortunately, more drought also means a more dangerous wildfire season for 2024.

Austin had a wet start to the year, with 3 more inches of rain than the annual average from January to April, according to the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. Still, in a May press release, the district noted that “the springs have remained on a downward trajectory since the heavy rains earlier this year” and that the Lovelady well levels, used to monitor the drought, could drop further “if May and June fail to bolster aquifer levels before the onset of summer.” As for the aquifers, the Trinity has “displayed minimal to no response to rainfall,” and Austin’s drinking water supply, the Highland Lakes, are still only about half full at 53% – the last time they were fully quenched was July 2019.

In light of these conditions, the city is trying to make Austin more resilient. On March 7, City Council passed an on-site water reuse ordinance, which now requires all new commercial, multifamily, or mixed-use developments over 250,000 square feet to collect rainwater for non-potable uses like toilet flushing and cooling systems. That program is projected to save 10% of the city’s current summer water use annually, and is part of Austin’s Water Forward plan, which maps out 100 years of the city’s water supply, and is set for completion this year.

Robert Mace, director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and a Water Forward task force member, says getting Austinites to conserve water is essential, but he’s been sensing some drought fatigue. “My theory is that the drought from 2008 to 2015 seemed scarier, because we were in true uncharted territory. It’s easy to look back on one you’ve come out of and go, 'It wasn’t so bad. Why were we so worried?’ But when you’re in it, you just don’t know how long it’s gonna go.”

With extended drought comes increased chances of wildfire. May is Wildfire Safety Month, and elected officials are stressing the importance of developing an emergency plan and checking that your home is “hardened” to fire. The city is making a specific effort to reach out to people east of MoPac for wildfire education, since neighborhood associations help to get the word out in West Austin already. The Austin area is no stranger to devastating wildfires – the 2011 Labor Day fire in Bastrop caused the largest per-capita loss in the nation’s history. Since then, the number of homes in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) – the transition zone between developed and undeveloped land, and the most fertile region for embers to reach homes – has only increased. The WUI covers 59% of Travis County.

Luckily, Austin was the first major city in Texas to adopt WUI-specific building codes in 2020. In her newsletter May 13, CM Alison Alter highlighted that Austin will be the first large city in the nation to give every firefighter WUI-specific training by this summer. Five new fire/EMS stations have opened in the last six years, and Alter has secured funding for Austin Energy’s fuel mitigation programs, which help clear underbrush and prevent tree branches from intersecting with power lines. This month, AE installed an advanced wildfire detection tool that uses AI to specifically track the location of wildfires. All these changes will be needed to protect Austin in the face of the inevitable “not if, but when” wildfire scenario.

“That’s part of my potential doom spiral,” says Mace. “We don’t have a wet spring, we then go into our traditionally hot, dry summer, then we’re greeted with El Niño conditions in the fall, winter, and spring. And we’re back into dry conditions next summer. There’s a fair chance we could go another year with substantially below normal rainfall.”

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