As Record Heat and Drought Gripped Texas This Summer, Our Water Systems Struggle

It’s official: This year, Texas experienced its second hottest summer on record. Between June and August, the average temperature in the state hovered around 85 degrees. In 2011, the hottest year on record that also set the state’s drought of record, average temperatures clocked in at over 86 degrees.  

The string of triple digit days that Texans experienced this summer was partially the result of a heat dome—a large area of high pressure, warm air—that got stuck over the state for weeks on end. In a briefing with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas’ state climatologist said that the heat wave, combined with the impacts of climate change, created a feedback loop that turned up the heat all summer.  

These unrelenting conditions resulted in immense stress on our water resources. As of September 21, the U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 80percent of the state is experiencing some level of drought.  

Across major cities and small towns alike, local governments initiated water restrictions as reservoir and lake levels dropped. According to a database from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, since June, public water systems in nearly 70 counties have issued water usage restrictions aimed at avoiding shortages —impacting more than 7 million Texans. Water restrictions, more formally known as drought contingency strategies, are an important tool that utilities and other water managers can use to extend the life of existing water supplies when they run dry. 

The extreme heat also caused already aging infrastructure like water mains and pipes to break across the state. That lead to millions of gallons of water wasted through leaks at a critical moment. In Fort Worth, for example, the city’s 800 miles of outdated cast iron pipes were particularly vulnerable to cracking and breaking. In Houston, the city has been taking nearly 500 calls a week about burst and leaking pipes—far more than last year, when drought conditions were less severe.  

A Texas Living Waters analysis found that every day, 51 gallons of water are lost per water service connection every day—equal to the average annual flow of the San Antonio River. Extreme heat, lower than average rainfall, and rapidly growing cities mean that we can no longer afford to lose precious water through leaking infrastructure. As the state continues to find more uses for water due to development and as we continue to see hotter and drier summers, it is essential that we invest in updated infrastructure to ensure the water that we capture, clean and pump through pipes is reaching its intended destination.   

Reservoir storage data from Texas Water Development Board

The extreme conditions this summer led to particularly harsh conditions for fish and wildlife in Texas. Across the state, rivers and streams were affected by the extended drought and increased demand from households and industrial and agricultural users. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that hundreds of its monitoring stations in state waterways are reporting below normal flows. When our rivers, streams and springs experience low flows, fish and wildlife suffer the consequences as well. Rivers and streams can dry up altogether and we all know dry rivers are poor fish and wildlife habitat. Low flows mean smaller habitats, higher water temperature, lower dissolved oxygen and less water flowing into Texas bays and estuaries.  

In the face of these challenges, investments in water infrastructure and better planning and management can ensure that communities and ecosystems can thrive in harsh conditions. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 28 and Senate Joint Resolution 75, which create a $1 billion fund for water infrastructure. But Texas voters still have to approve the funds this November through a constitutional amendment. The funding provides a much needed path forward for communities that desperately need to update and expand their aging systems.  

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The Texas Living Waters Project is transforming the way we manage water so there will be enough for our wildlife, our economy, and our kids. Forever.

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