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Searing heat spotlights West’s long-term water woes
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Searing heat spotlights West’s long-term water woes

  • Cracked earth near Turkey Flats, in the Joshua Tree National Park.
    Brad Sutton/NPSCracked earth near Turkey Flats, in the Joshua Tree National Park.

Located near the resort community of Wimberly, just 45 miles southwest of Austin, Jacob’s Well has earned a near-legendary reputation as one of the most popular swimming holes in the Central Texas Hill Country. Hundreds come to the artesian spring each summer to dip into blue-green waters that flow from an underground cavern system more than 140 feet deep.

But today, the water source that once sustained Native American tribes is facing an uncertain future, a victim of the relentless drought and extreme heat sweeping much of Texas and other states, including California, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

On June 29, Hays County authorities who manage the 81-acre recreational site suspended swimming for the foreseeable future out of fear that falling water levels would lead to contamination and endanger swimmers.

“They determined that the water quality was no longer safe,” said Katherine Sturdivant, outreach coordinator for the Hays County Parks Department. The spring has stopped flowing only three times, during previous droughts in the 21st century. Sturdivant worries that it could be on the verge of No. 4.

The threats facing Jacob’s Well — so-named by mid-19th Century settler William Winter because the natural well conjured up thoughts of “Bible times” — are repeated across much of the West, as record temperatures leave their mark on a broad array of daily life, from failing crops on the farm to burn bans and water restrictions in the cities.

The effects of the drought, which is being compared in Texas to the last severe drought in 2011, have heightened concerns over the long-range availability of water, particularly in burgeoning population centers such as Austin’s Travis County and Hays (San Marcos) and Bexar (San Antonio) counties to the south.

Throughout the West, the story is much the same if not worse. The nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the giants of the Colorado River Basin — each have fallen to barely over a fourth of their capacity, threatening the future of water supplies and hydroelectric power to at least 40 million people in seven Western states.

With states such as Arizona, Colorado and Nevada projected to grow by 30% or more by 2060, planners fear that demands for water increasingly will outstrip supply. Some areas are trying to address the shortages by restricting water use, building new pipelines and reservoirs, and upgrading inefficient equipment, among other actions.

“The main conclusion is we’re going to have to do more with less,” said Benjamin Hatchett, assistant professor of atmospheric science at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. 

For California, whose once stratospheric population growth has fallen to a much slower pace, the supply-vs-demand story revolves more around prolonged drought and climate change than the sheer infusion of people. California is grappling with its third drought since the beginning of the 21st century — one that started two years ago — following those of 2012 and 2016.

“We’ve been telling people we need to stop thinking about drought as an occasional emergency that occurs and then goes away, but recognize that we are in a transition phase to a warmer and drier climate,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the California Department of Water Resources. One potential outcome, she said, is the loss of wintertime mountain snowpacks that for centuries have replenished water supplies that support people, agriculture and industry.

“By the end of the century, California will lose most of its mountain snowpack,” said Jones. “And even by mid-century, which is not that far away now, we will lose a very substantial chunk of it.”

In Texas, anecdotes abound about the devastation and discomfort caused by the unforgiving march of 100-degree-plus days. In Cotulla, the La Salle County seat of 4,000 about 90 miles south of San Antonio on Interstate 35, the forecast this week called for daily temperatures of 101 to 106.

“Everything’s just a varying shade of brown,” lamented Kevin Coleman, a farmer and rancher who has his own 25-acre spread outside of Cotulla and manages a 5,000 acre ranch farther west for a Houston family. Of the eight stock tanks on the ranch, “three have dried up completely,” he said. The grass on his acreage, he said, is “about like eating tissue paper” for his four longhorn steers. “It’s pretty hard on them.”

Underground aquifers such as the Trinity, which feeds Jacob’s Well, and Edwards, which supplies San Antonio, the nation’s seventh largest city, all have been hurt by a drop in water tables because of a prolonged absence of the rain needed to replenish groundwater.

The state’s existing water supplies, those that can be relied upon in the event of drought, are projected to decline 18% by 2070, primarily because of the depletion of aquifers, according to the 2022 state water plan, although billions of dollars of projects are underway to augment water resources.

“A lot of people have their wells in the Trinity Aquifer,” Sturdivant said recently as she stood on a stone ledge overlooking Jacob’s Well. “We’ve got more people than ever living in Hays County, and they all have a little straw in the aquifer system.”

The Edwards Aquifer Authority already has imposed the first three of its five stages of water restrictions and is likely to impose stage four by mid-August, which will require cities and other government customers to restrict water usage by up to 40%. For end-users such as homeowners and commercial customers, one of the most likely outcomes would be greater restrictions on outdoor water use.

Virtually all the states grappling with prolonged drought are facing pressure to maintain adequate water supplies. In California, Jennifer Clary of San Francisco-based Clean Water Action said there have been reports that as many as 250 private wells have gone dry in a 30-day period. “As the summer goes on, those numbers can climb even more … because so many people are dependent on ground wells.”

Efforts to curtail local water use across the West have included voluntary and non-voluntary restrictions such as forbidding lawn-watering during the hot part of the day — resurrecting tensions between homeowner associations and property owners demanding greater leniency to install non-grass landscaping such as rock gardens to curb rising water bills.

The ever-present threat of droughts in the region has forced long-range planning to stockpile future water supplies, though the efforts don’t ensure complete fulfillment in Sun Belt regions continually luring population growth from other states. After the 2011 drought, one of the worst droughts on record, Texas voters enacted a constitutional amendment in 2013 to implement the State Water Implementation Fund, known as SWIFT, to finance local and regional projects under the State Water Plan.

As of mid-July, the state had committed $9.2 billion in SWIFT funding to support 58 state water projects, but 2.5 million acre-feet of water (an acre-foot equals a surface acre 1-foot deep) will remain unmet by 2070, according to the 2022 Texas State Water Plan. The initiatives, developed at the local and regional level, include a broad range of measures, from building pipelines to upgrading old and inefficient water systems and developing an array of conservation projects.

One of the most ambitious projects is the $2.3 billion initiative to build more than 150 miles of pipeline to bring water from three lakes to the multi-county Dallas-Fort Worth region in North Texas, one of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions with nearly 8 million people. Planners expect an additional 350 million gallons of water per day to the region. 

Two new reservoirs also are on tap for North Texas, both of which will add hundreds of millions of gallons to the regional supply.  

Texas’ population is expected to increase 73%, according to the plan. Water planners say the state will need to spend $80 billion to fulfill the state’s water needs by 2070 or face the possibility of leaving a quarter of the state’s population with less than half their future water needs.

Under the current drought, said Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist with the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s major water reservoirs are generally about 73% full, below what would be a normal of about 83% full. “We’re feeling the pinch,” he said.

But the plight facing Texas lakes is overshadowed by the more publicized crisis facing Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, which has sunk to its lowest level in nearly 90 years, 27% of capacity.

As of last week, at least 45% of the country was in at least moderate drought, much of it in the West and South, including Texas, and parts of the regions were experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought, said Curtis Riganti, climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In Oklahoma, what State Climatologist Gary McManus described as “great rainfall” in early June offered promise that the state might be spared. “And then June 11,” he said, “it really got hot and stayed hot,” resulting in a “flash drought” that has gripped the state in prolonged heat and lack of precipitation.

The 45-day period from June 11 to July 25 has been the driest period in 100 years, he said, surpassing the same period during the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the droughts of the 1950s.

Drought throughout the affected states has hammered the agriculture industry, leaving many farmers without a crop to harvest, and forcing ranchers unable to feed their herds on parched earth to auction off their livestock. The economic blowback also has imperiled ag-dependent businesses such as farm equipment suppliers and grain dealers.

“For agriculture, the drought is extreme right now,” said Gary Joiner, a spokesperson for the Texas Farm Bureau.

Attendance at livestock auctions has soared as ranchers seek to reduce their herd size much earlier than anticipated, said Joiner.

“They do not have the forage on the ground to feed the animals. They do not have the hay supplies to supplement,” he said. “In some cases, they don’t have the water on their property to maintain those animals.”

Val Stephens of Lamesa, whose family has a 1,500-acre cotton farm in Dawson County, was forced to file an insurance claim after he lost his cotton crop, a standard dilemma facing farmers throughout the northwest Texas Cotton Belt.

“It’s just a tough situation all the way around,” he said.

With their three children grown and out of the house, Stephens, 69, and his wife remain on a farm that has been in the family since his grandparents moved there in the 1920s. Despite the seasonal uncertainties and the ever-present threat of drought, he says he never intends to leave.

“Farmers in West Texas are very, very optimistic,” he said. “We keep after it and hoping the next year will be better, and it generally works out.”

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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