The best time to plan for drought is when we aren’t in one
Drought is nothing new to Texans; it is frequent and inevitable. Across much of Texas the end of the current drought is being declared—soil moisture levels are nearing normal and ephemeral rivers are flowing again—while other portions of the state are already on the verge of slipping back into drought conditions despite recent rains. This reprieve from drought is a most welcome relief, yet we can be certain there is another drought around the corner.
Drought, unlike a hurricane or flood, doesn’t have a distinct beginning or end. Drought is a creeping phenomenon that is, in the most basic terms, defined by the lack of precipitation. However, some municipalities define drought by water treatment and storage capacity meaning that water restrictions aren’t triggered until we’re deep into drought. Since drought is unpredictable, planning for it must occur today, when we aren’t in drought. Proactive planning for drought today helps stretch our precious water resources for drier days, and helps keep our rivers sufficiently flowing to protect fish and wildlife.
What are Texas cities doing to prepare for drought?
In addition to having a good Drought Contingency Plan in place for times of drought, another important way that cities can better position themselves for the onset of a drought is by working to make the most efficient use of their existing water supplies all the time (through water conservation), even if drought is nowhere in sight. Cities across Texas are looking for ways to reduce their every day water use. As a water conservation measure, many communities have implemented year-round ordinances that restrict the number of days for outdoor watering. Example cities include Dallas, Fort Worth, and The Woodlands. Programs like this save water every day, so that when a community does inevitably begin to enter into drought, they have more water supply on hand. This also reduces revenue volatility for the utility so it can better budget.
Some communities are taking more significant steps to further decrease the amount of water that is applied to outdoor landscapes, which increases overall water efficiency in their communities. Austin is considering implementing no more than one time per week outdoor watering year-round, and Corpus Christi has beefed up their Drought Contingency Plan, so that once per week watering is in effect nearly all the time—unless water supplies in their reservoirs surpass 90%.
Why one time per week watering?
According to reference material provided to the Corpus Christi City Council, “many citizens realized that one-day-per-week irrigation is more than enough to keep landscapes healthy in South Texas.” Texas has been in drought for many years, and communities have learned that landscapes can survive on less water than they have been accustomed to applying to their lawns and landscapes.
In a June 29, 2015 memo, Austin’s City Manager urged the City Council to consider adopting one time per week watering permanently. The memo stated that citizens have adapted to one day per week watering, which has yielded the largest water savings of all the programs the city has implemented to date. This easy measure to cut back on discretionary water use helps better prepare cities for drought by using water more efficiently all the time—so there will be more water available for everyone, and everything, when drought returns.
Why focus on the lawn?
In Texas, outdoor water use, particularly lawn watering, accounts for almost one third of annual residential water use, and can be much higher during hot, dry summers. In addition, homeowners have a tendency to overwater landscapes by as much as 2 to 3 times the amount needed.
Watering the lawn less frequently not only helps stretch our current water supplies, but also creates a hardier lawn. Less irrigation forces the plant roots to grow deeper. Deeper roots provide more structure to the soil and hold more water, which allows lawns to better survive the drought.
What can you do?
Most of the water we use for drinking, cooking, bathing, and watering lawns comes from the rivers and bayous that flow into our bays and estuaries. Giving the sprinklers a rest reduces additional pumping or water diversions that further reduce the amount of water available to support fish and wildlife habitat in our rivers, bayous, and bays. It also means that we can put off or avoid the development of additional new water supplies, such as new pipelines and reservoirs, which are expensive and have significant environmental impacts.
Let’s do our part to ensure that we have water for people and the environment—in times of plenty and in times of drought. Find out the watering schedule in your community and follow it. Advocate for water savings through the implementation of outdoor watering restrictions that limit watering to no more than one or two times per week. Water is too precious – and expensive – to misuse it.