The 2011 Texas Drought: its impacts and implications

by Behni Bolhassani
November 24, 2014

Drought and excessive heat are nothing new to Texans. These are, and will continue to be, facts of life in Texas. Fast growing urban areas intensify the impacts. In recent years, the severity and persistence of drought and heat has taken a toll on the Lone Star State. Current drought contingency plans are not enough to address the challenges and to initiate proper responses. The 2011 conditions reflected the failure of current management policies and emphasized the need for prudent reactions before the next inevitable drought.

The mismanagement during drought and extreme heat in 2011 resulted in: shortage of drinking water, devastating fires, and other environmental and economic losses in our state. Less water available for human use during drought caused prioritization of water consumption and therefore reduction in non-human uses such as land irrigation and even livestock watering.

The driest year in Texas history cost Texas agriculture approximately $8 billion, making it the most expensive drought in history. Texas was the third producer of agricultural products after California and Iowa in the US in 2010, so a drop in Texas crop production could certainly increase prices nationally. Being an agricultural hub, the drought brought enormous economic losses for Texas.

The total direct cost of agricultural loss was $5.2 billion with an estimated $3.5 billion in indirect costs, bringing the total loss to $8.7 billion. The direct costs were due to a drop in cotton, wheat, hay, corn, and sorghum production along with livestock losses. The indirect costs were associated with job losses and crop price increase.

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD), the drought significantly decreased park attendance, demanding $4.6 million just to keep parks open to the public. Furthermore, fishing and hunting license sales profits dropped significantly in 2011 which, historically, help run the state economy and generate revenues for TPWD operations.

The most devastating wildfire in Texas history happened during the 2011 drought in Bastrop county; it destroyed 1,691 homes and left $325 million in losses. Moreover, low water levels caused by drought endangered many Texas aquatic species. Texas typically has clay-rich soils that shrink when dry and cause the soil to buckle and damage the infrastructure. The 2011 drought caused considerable damage to foundations, roads and water and sewer lines due to soil shrinkage.

These were just some of the economic and environmental burdens of the 2011 drought and the next one might be even worse. One of the best ways to prepare Texas for drought is to promote public awareness about using water efficiently. Using water efficiently will promise greater reserves of water on hand before another drought begins. Improving water conservation programs and current water contingency programs can aid the effective implementation of drought response actions. Another way is to develop the state’s water storage infrastructure hand-in-hand with its population growth. With high population growth expected in the future and, absent a focus on better drought planning, Texas stands to continue to experience worsening impacts from droughts.

Source: Testimony at TWDB Work Session Meeting (October 21, 2014)

Behni Bolhassani  is a first-year masters candidate at UT's Jackson School of Geosciences.