Friday, July 29, 2011

Water, Water, Nowhere

It's hot. Really hot. And dry. Really dry. The last nine months are the driest in Texas history. And that includes the infamous 1950s drought and the 1930s Dust Bowl drought. On Wednesday, Dallas suffered through its 26th consecutive day of 100 degrees or higher, the third longest such streak in history. We can tie the second longest streak, 29 days, on Saturday. With all of August still ahead of us, the all-time record of 42 consecutive days, set in 1980, is not out of the question.

After the jump, a roundup of the mounting disaster.

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
"The ferocious Texas drought is clobbering crops, thinning out cattle herds, decimating wildlife, and drying up streams and reservoirs, but it's also wreaking havoc deep underground, where the state's aquifers are dropping at a precipitous rate, experts say."

From the Austin American-Statesman:
"As ponds evaporate, crops fail and the cost of hay mounts, Texas ranchers enduring one of the worst droughts on record are selling off their cattle in droves, a move likely to cause ripples across the globe. ... The cost of the current drought may be even twice that of the previous most costly drought, which cost $4.1 billion in 2006."

From an article in the San Antonio Express-News by State Representative Lyle Larson (R- San Antonio):
"While missing out on Independence Day fireworks or living with dead landscaping is the extent of most folks' experience with drought today, if we continue to do nothing, 'drought' will mean something entirely different tomorrow. Texans must commit to preparing for the future and demand that their elected officials make water planning a top priority."

So, in the grip of record heat and drought, why do Texans "do nothing?" Why does it seem that so many are just taking the heat and drought in stride, shrugging it off, expecting it to eventually solve itself? Perhaps with just a little help from God? Or a tropical storm?

Paul Burka blames our elected officials. They lead Texans to believe we can solve our water problems without the need to raise taxes to pay for the solution. The latest example is Proposition 2, a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November to borrow money to pay for the state water plan. Burka explains:
"I'm all for making water planning a top priority. I just want us to pay for it, fair and square, instead of borrowing it and pretending that it doesn't cost anything. I would just like to see one politician -- preferably, governor Perry -- say that we are going to pay for something with revenue, not by going deeper into debt. There were several proposals before the Legislature this session that would have paid for the water plan, including a tap fee, a bottled water assessment, and other ideas. Governor Perry could have done an enormous service for this state had he stepped forward and said that we must fund the water plan. He knows we have to have water projects to protect our state's future. Everyone knows we have to do it. But it's never going to get done, because the Lyle Larsons and the Rick Perrys want the people to think we can do it for 'free' by going into debt. Then Perry can say, look, we never raise taxes. True. And we also don't ever do anything about the water plan, even when we are stricken by drought."

I think Burka is on to something. The water bonds are part of a pattern. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently compared the finances of the state of Texas with the federal government and found that "the debt load in conservative Texas has grown faster than the federal debt." You heard that right: "While Texas lawmakers have refused to raise taxes -- and often criticize Washington for borrowing and spending -- the state has been paying for much of its expansion with borrowed money."

Locally (i.e., Richardson), there are other possible explanations for why residents don't seem overly concerned about the drought and heat. For one, we're lucky in that North Texas has escaped the worst of the drought conditions (although not the heat). For another, the cities in the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) had the foresight to contract for the reservoirs and pipelines needed to ensure an adequate supply of water. If anything, local elected officials have been criticized for doing their job too well. Because of the economic recession and increased conservation, Richardson's water use has not grown as fast as projected, so the city is on the hook to pay for water it doesn't currently need. Critics of city hall have tried to make that an issue in recent elections. It's a "problem" that cities all over the rest of Texas would dearly love to have.

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