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. Although most water suppliers are required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to develop drought contingency plans, the plans are all too often insufficient to address the challenges faced during drought.
The Texas Living Waters Project recommends the following solutions to three major issues made evident during the current drought:
1. Drought contingency plans should incorporate the severity of meteorological conditions, or other similar indicators of drought intensity, into the triggers for drought response stages and water use reductions tied to those stages.
The triggers chosen for the implementation of different stages of a drought contingency plan, such as lake or aquifer levels, often do not take into account the relative severity of climatic conditions, an oversight that can delay meaningful responses to drought far too long.
For example, with the severe drought conditions of 2011, many communities did not trigger drought responses until well into the summer after large amounts of water had been inefficiently applied to lawns and reserves had already been driven uncomfortably low.
The prudent reaction to such severe conditions would be to initiate drought response measures earlier if a combination of recent rainfall and near-term climate predictions indicates an unusually severe drought is at hand.
2. Water suppliers in a given area should develop a coordinated approach to drought contingency planning and management to reduce confusion among residents and increase the effectiveness of drought response strategies.
There is often a lack of consistency in drought contingency plans and implementation of those plans within the same geographic areas, even when water suppliers are using the same source of supply.
For example, during 2011, the City of Houston required homeowners buying water directly from the City to comply with drought restrictions. However, other homeowners, who bought water from another water supplier that, in turn, purchased water from the City of Houston, were never required to comply with any drought restrictions. Consequently different homeowners, relying on the same source of supply and located in the same area, were subject to inconsistent drought requirements. As a result, homeowners on one side of the street could be subject to restrictions on lawn watering while homeowners on the other side of the street would not be subject to any restrictions. Such situations are inefficient and inequitable and undermine public support for critically important drought restrictions.
3. Water suppliers should incorporate an appropriate drought period “surcharge” for high water use for non-essential purposes as part of their drought contingency plans.
Concerns by water suppliers about the potential for lost revenues may provide a disincentive for achieving critically necessary water use reductions during drought. A drought period “surcharge” for high water use would address this concern and provide an incentive for residents to reduce consumption.