Texas water supply at risk because of climate change, Texas A&M study finds

by | Jul 10, 2020 | Environment, Policy

As climate change brings about hotter temperatures in Texas, water supply could be threatened as early as 2050, according to a team of researchers led by a Texas A&M University professor.

Using climate models, the team of researchers found that drier summers as well as more frequent, longer droughts could threaten water supply in Texas used for agriculture and other essential purposes.

Regents Professor John Nielsen-Gammon, director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies and the Texas State Climatologist, told the Signal temperatures in Texas have already warmed about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit when compared to average temperatures in the 20th century.

That may sound at odds with the most recent and devastating examples of wetter climate change-spurred weather disasters, namely Hurricane Harvey. Nielsen-Gammon said that these intense flooding events will still occur, even as Texas grows hotter. 

“We are seeing in Texas and across the world an intensification of rainfall,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “The difference between intensification and increase is that intensification means that it’s coming in more concentrated bursts of rain, and then we have longer periods of dryness in-between.” 

“So you can think of it as rainfall becoming more erratic,” Nielsen-Gammon continued. “We can simultaneously have greater floods and more intense droughts in the same climate.”

Nielsen-Gammon said one way to think about the upcoming drier climate in Texas is by imagining that entire geographic regions in the state move locations. For example, dry conditions in West Texas could slowly migrate to East Texas.

“Houston’s climate becomes more like Victoria or San Antonio’s climate, San Antonio’s climate becomes more like Del Rio’s climate, and so on,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

Researchers project that drier conditions during the latter half of the 21st century will match or even exceed the most arid centuries of the past 1,000 years.

That presents a major problem for agricultural producers, water suppliers, and water planning managers who may not have the necessary data to understand the scope of how climate change will impact regional water supply.

“If water becomes scarcer, the value of water goes up, and if you have to pay a lot for water for agriculture, the food becomes impossible to sell because it’s too expensive,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

While cities like Houston and Dallas have adopted climate action plans to curb carbon emissions in the coming years, Texas is one of 18 states that has yet to adopt a statewide climate action plan. Several climate change-related bills filed in the Texas Legislature last year would have allowed the state to study and plan for climate change, but they died in Republican-led committees.

Last year, NASA revealed that 2019 was the second warmest year on record, losing only to 2016. According to NASA, every decade since the 1960s has been warmer than the one before.

Human activity has already caused an increase in global temperatures by 1 degree Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels, according to the latest report by the IPCC, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations focusing on climate change. The international community has less than a dozen years to prevent climate change from warming global temperatures by another 1.5°C (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), or else risk long-lasting or irreversible damage to Earth’s ecosystems.

Photo: David Trood/ Getty Images

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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