Drought Contingency Planning

Drought response, also called drought contingency planning, is a way to ensure that critical water needs are met during a dry period, minimizing the economic, social, and environmental impacts of a drought. Water utilities across the state have prepared for such occasions by developing tactical plans, called drought contingency plans, to reduce peak demands and extend water supplies during a drought. Today, most water suppliers are required to have drought contingency plans that include “specific, quantified targets for water use reductions” on file with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. These plans must be updated every five years. The most recent update was due May 1, 2014.

Lake Travis during 2011 drought, 46.52 feet below normal Photo courtesty of Chase A. Foundation, TPWD

Lake Travis during the 2011 drought, 46.52 feet below normal
Photo courtesty of Chase A. Foundation, TPWD

During 2011, more than 1,000 water utilities and municipalities implemented some aspects of their plans. Unfortunately, there is little state review of these plans and in some cases, insufficient plans  provided inadequate tools for dealing with the challenges of extreme drought. The City of Groesbeck nearly ran out of water in November 2011 after waiting until only two months of water supply remained before implementing significant drought response measures.

In 2014, the Texas Center for Policy Studies released the report Learning from Drought that estimates implementation of effective drought management plans for all major Texas reservoirs could extend existing supply by an estimated 1.5 million acre-feet/year.

Common Drought Contingency Plan Components

Most drought contingency plans are based on trigger levels – when reservoir storage, aquifer levels or spring flows fall to a defined amount, municipalities and/or water suppliers take steps to cut back on demand. These plans frequently include multiple stages, where smaller or voluntary cutbacks are implemented first. As an area’s available water supply declines, the cutbacks usually increase in severity and become mandatory. In urban and suburban areas, water use increases dramatically in the summer due to lawn watering, and municipalities frequently see water use more than double during summer months. The Texas Water Development Board estimates that landscape watering accounts for about one-third of total municipal water use on a year-round basis.

Photo by Jellaluna, Flickr.com.

Photo by Jellaluna, Flickr.com

Most municipalities’ plans focus on restricting landscape irrigation, and many plans limit landscape watering during the day. Watering during the heat of the day is inefficient because much of the water is lost to evaporation. Another common strategy is to restrict landscape watering to once or twice a week or every other week. Often this is based on the last digit of a customer’s address or garbage pickup day. Again, we recommend that limiting landscape watering to no more than twice per week should be an everyday practice regardless of drought. Dallas, Fort Worth and Conroe are among the first cities to implement permanent twice per week landscape watering. Other strategies include prohibitions or restrictions on car washing, filling pools and fountains, flushing fire hydrants, and watering golf course fairways.

Sample Drought Contingency Plans

Here are some sample drought contingency plans from around the state:

Drought in Texas

Droughts are, and will continue to be, a fact of life in Texas. A drought occurs when there is a lack of adequate precipitation over an extended period of time. Some part of the state is likely to be in a year-long drought once every three years.

Get Involved

Learn how you can help at home, in your community and at the state level to improve the way Texas responds to drought.

Learning from the Current Drought

For many municipalities and water suppliers, the severe drought conditions encountered in 2011 highlighted the inadequacy of existing drought management policies and the need to significantly improve response strategies before the next inevitable drought.

Protecting Rivers During Drought

Water supply projects such as dams, pipelines and pumps that are over-sized to meet peak demand, which could be significantly reduced during drought, negatively impact the health of our rivers, bays, fish and wildlife.

Saving Money and Water During Drought

While droughts can be economically damaging for a region, particularly in agricultural areas, effective drought response planning can help a region prepare for droughts and minimize a drought's economic impact.

State Water Planning and Drought

With the passage of Senate Bill 1 in 1997 and Senate Bill 2 in 2001, the Texas Legislature called for drought response to be an essential part of water planning in Texas.

Useful Links and Resources

Useful links to additional information on drought and drought response planning.

Water Conservation or Drought Response?

The difference between water conservation and drought response is that water conservation is an on-going effort, whereas drought response is a short-term response to a water supply shortage.