Texas take note: Austin is increasing water security by predicting the effects of climate change

by Frank Schalla

The topic of climate change normally forces the State of Texas to bury its head in the sand and deny the near universal scientific consensus that it is happening and we need to plan for it. For the State of Texas, which is frequently in periods of drought, climate change will directly affect the state’s ability to provide water for its growing population.

Katharine Hayhoe, a climate change consultant for Austin Water, is predicting increases in temperature, extreme precipitation events and more frequent drought conditions. For Austin Water and specifically the Austin Integrated Water Resource Planning Community Task Force, this is incredibly important information that is being utilized. In 2011, evaporation from the Highland Lakes (the sole source of the City of Austin’s water) was more than the City of Austin consumed in that entire year. This is a real concern given that increases in temperature increase evaporation and more frequent droughts mean less precipitation to refill reservoirs. These changes will affect nearly 200 major reservoirs across Texas which hold over half the available surface water in the state.  

The ability to predict future climate conditions is essential for making long term plans to meet water needs. For example, a new reservoir in Texas could take 20 years to plan and build and must be completed before water needs arise. These plans require cities and the state to spend billions of dollars in new infrastructure and initiatives.  Yet new climate conditions could significantly alter water yields for a reservoir, turning a long term investment into a mediocre solution.

Currently, the Texas Water Development Board is responsible for state water planning on a 50 year horizon yet cannot consider the effects of climate change. With so much at stake over such an essential resource, is the politically motivated decision to ignore climate change worth the risks?

In contrast, the City of Austin won’t be surprised by the future effects of climate change on their water resources. It is taking a proactive approach by using the best available science to predict how climate change will affect water availability. The drought of 2011 cost Texas $8 billion in agricultural losses and left the town of Spicewood Beach without water. Texas should take note as it is evident that the effect of poor and improper planning can be disastrous and expensive. We need to plan for climate change because it is happening, no matter how far you bury your head in the sand.