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Officials: Record drought could drag on

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Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2013 5:02 am

When the spigot turned off in October 2010, it stayed off. And there’s no telling when it could turn back on again.

The National Weather Service says the South Texas drought is the worst in modern memory, with only a 0.1 percent chance of happening over the past 120 years. Since the last major rainfall amounts in October 2010, the Valley has only seen about 30 inches of rainfall — shattering the previous record of 38 inches set over a 29-month period in the early 1950s.

The drought has blown away all prior records for its magnitude to make it a “true outlier,” said Barry Goldsmith, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Brownsville office.

“If you think it’s been really dry and you haven’t seen something like this before, the answer is: ‘Yes, you never have seen this before,’” Goldsmith said Wednesday at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council’s monthly meeting.

Goldsmith and Texas Division of Emergency Management officials briefed local elected officials who sit on the development council about response plans for a drought that is unlikely to end this summer. 

The National Weather Service’s forecast models suggest the weather pattern that has contributed to the drought is likely to continue until at least the early summer. While fronts can bring a brief reprieve from the hot and dry pattern that has persisted since late 2010, the National Weather Service says it will likely take a slow-moving hurricane or tropical storm to alleviate the acute drought plaguing South Texas.

With no apparent ending point for the drought in sight, Goldsmith encouraged local officials to implement aggressive conservation plans.

Texas Division of Emergency Management officials have pushed for a public outreach campaign to educate Valley residents about ways to conserve water, such as washing the car fewer times or limiting water to plants or trees. But emergency management officials have also said the cities and counties in South Texas will have to develop a regional concept for addressing conservation. 

Gabriela Stermolle, a Texas Division of Emergency Management planner, said the entire region have to work together on water conservation plans.

“We saw cities that were close to running out of water, and there were other cities still on voluntary restrictions,” she said. “These regions have to essentially be on the same page. If you have one city that is voluntary and another that is showing extreme resolve, the disparity there puts a damper on drought response as a region.”

But McAllen City Commissioner Jim Darling said there hasn’t been much coordination between the cities to date or historically in previous droughts. Darling, who also heads the Valley’s water planning group, said the current drought provides an opportunity for Valley cities to discuss long-term water contingency plans.

Among other options, cities are considering digging more groundwater wells to augment the water supply from the Rio Grande, Darling said. However, the brackish ground water must be treated before use through costly reverse osmosis plants and still could never meet municipal demand for water by itself.

Cameron and Willacy communities are also exploring seawater desalination plants that siphon water off the Gulf of Mexico, another expensive process that could aid in a drought. Irrigation districts and cities are also looking to improve the water delivery process — adding canal liners to reduce seepage or installing underground pipeline to limit evaporation — to reduce the amount of wasted water.

But Darling said those any of those plans are better for longer-term drought management.

“The time to do it is not when you’re in a drought; it’s when you have water,” Darling said. “The problem is you can’t get anybody’s attention when there’s water in the reservoir.”

At least in the immediate future, the best plan might be to conserve water and then pray for rain.

The worst drought on record — before this one — ran from 1951 to 1954, when Hurricane Alice ended it with a torrential downpour. In the midst of that drought in 1952, though, only about 100,000 acre-feet of unused Rio Grande water reached Brownsville, according to a 1963 U.S. Geological Survey report. That total was less than 5 percent of the yearly average of 2.5 million acre-feet that reached Brownsville in the 30 years before.

With the river largely useless and dams at Amistad and Falcon not yet in place, Valley communities instead relied on what water they could siphon out of the ground. Since Hurricane Alex topped off the reservoirs in 2010, the Valley’s current drought leaves it far from that point.

But Goldsmith said the Valley’s population gains necessitate long-term plans, especially with its population projected to double over the next 40 years. While a passing thunderstorm might offer a brief respite and a hurricane could offer a longer one, it’s likely going to be more dry than wet.

“It’s going to rain again,” Goldsmith said. “Until we see a long-term pattern change, we’re going to see more of these droughts than fewer. These plans are for long-term thinking to keep the Valley viable.”

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Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at jjanes@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4424 or on Twitter, @moncounty.

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