In the midst of this extreme drought, when the soil is so parched even heavy showers hardly make a difference, it might seem that the dry weather will never end. Just this September a tropical
downpour dropped buckets of rain on the Brazos basin – 6 to 8 inches in some locations – yet the drought lingers on.
Fortunately, the past has shown that in Texas, drought comes and goes in a cycle with rainier weather. Even after the most devastating, withering droughts, the rains always return, and
this time will be no different. But we Texans aren’t the kind to simply take a dry spell sitting on our duffs – and our history is filled with examples of innovation and planning to help us make it through
until the rain returns.
Drought has been documented as a part of Texas life from the time that Spanish explorers first passed through. In the 1500s, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca encountered a group of soil tillers
living near what is now Presidio, Texas. They had not had rain in two years, and when they saw the light-skinned explorer they thought he was a deity and they begged him to make the rain return, according
to the Handbook of Texas Online. Even the “Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin, faced drought’s harsh reality when the group of 300 families he brought to colonize suffered as drought killed their entire
corn crop their first year.
From early on, people have responded to drought in Texas in a variety of ways – some more successfully than others. In the early 1900s, cereal Magnate Charles William Post attempted to
set up a utopian community near what is now the Garza County seat, Post. Vexed by drought conditions, Post did battle with the clouds in hopes of forcing the rain to fall, according to the Handbook of
Texas Online. Over three years he launched explosives into the sky from several towers along the edge of the Caprock Escarpment. He hoped to force the clouds to release their stored water, apparently
with little success.
The Brazos River Authority was created, in part, to develop a reliable water supply following a series of droughts in the first decades of the 1900s. The organization was originally called
the Brazos River Conservation and Reclamation District when it was established by the Texas Legislature in 1929. It was the first state agency in the nation created to develop and manage the water resources
of an entire river basin.
In the 1930s, the BRA’s forerunner developed a master plan to secure a surface water supply in the Brazos basin to meet the public’s needs during drought. Initially the plan called for
the building of dams to create 13 reservoirs across the basin. Ultimately three such water supply reservoirs were created, Possum Kingdom in 1941, Granbury in 1969 and Limestone in 1978. Together with
eight reservoirs operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, these three lakes continue to supply the Brazos basin with water during drought such as the one we are currently enduring.
In the 1950s, Texas and a large swath of the rest of the United States was struck by what has been known in most places since as the “drought of record,” in severity and duration. By
the time the drought began to lift in 1957, the Texas Legislature had taken two actions with an eye on being prepared for the next big drought. Lawmakers created the Texas Water Development Board,
partly in an effort to reduce the devastation of future droughts.
Also that year, legislators passed the Water Planning Act of 1957, which created a state plan to develop, conserve and promote the beneficial use of Texas water.
The federal government also responded to the drought of the 1950s, loaning the BRA water from the newly constructed Lake Whitney to help meet insufficient water supply stores within
the basin. In the years following, the US Army Corps of Engineers began construction on a series of reservoir projects, adding 419,000 acre-feet of long-term dependable water supply to the Brazos basin.
Following the drought of 1988, the BRA developed its first Drought Contingency Policy, providing guidance to effectively maximize the beneficial uses of the water stored in the basin.
Operation of the plan was based upon the location of drought conditions and the amount of water available for supply in that area of the basin.
It was after another devastating drought in the 1990s, that the Texas Water Development Board began an overhaul of the state water planning process. Senate Bill 1, passed in 1997, created
16 regional water planning groups, whose ideas together would make up the state plan. SB1 also required that from then forward, the State Water Plan would be updated every five years. The most recent
plan was created in 2012. Though the plan stood in place for the state, there were no state funds provided to begin implementation of the plan. More information about the plan may be found by clicking here.
Another change came in 2008, when an update to Texas’ Administrative Code required all retail public water suppliers to submit drought contingency plans showing how they would respond to
drought conditions. The current plan is a tool to help conserve the water remaining in the system as long as possible and delay or prevent water shortages.
The plan includes levels for increasing drought severity, during which customers will be asked to practice appropriate conservation efforts. The BRA plan is also fluid; it is updated to
reflect changing realities of the environment and other factors. For instance, when the plan is updated next, it will include data and lessons learned from the current, multi-year drought. To learn more
about the BRA’s Drought Contingency Plan, please click here.
It took yet another drought, the one we are still experiencing, to help prompt the Legislature to find a means to fund the needed infrastructure to implement the State Water Plan.
Lawmakers created two accounts to hold up to $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day fund.” Loans from these accounts could provide “seed money” to help pay for reservoirs, pipelines and other projects
in the State Water Plan. Once the loans are paid back, the money could be used for additional projects. This funding plan will go into effect if voters this November 5 approve Proposition 6 for an amendment
to the Texas Constitution.
On a local scale, the threat of water shortages from drought has resulted in some novel techniques to conserve water. A good example can be found right in the middle of the Brazos
basin, in the city of Round Rock. Officials there have come up with a couple of ways to stretch that water supply a little further. First, they plan to use treated reclaimed water from a local waste
treatment plant to irrigate areas where they normally would have used fresh water, such as on golf courses, baseball fields and other places. Beginning in June, the city also began offering rebates
of up to $250 to its water customers who install rainwater collection systems. They also encourage people to collect condensation water that streams out of air-conditioners as they work overtime during
the warmer months.
In Texas, dead crops, dust storms and dropping lake levels are not drought’s only legacy. We Texans are well-versed in rolling up our sleeves and doing what needs to be done to help
us get by when the rain stops.