It’s October, and 93 percent of the state of Texas is under drought conditions. Roughly 30 percent of the state is in a “severe drought” or worse. According to State Climatologist John-Nielsen Gammon, 2011 was the single driest year recorded in Texas with an average rainfall of only 14.8 inches. It’s probably not surprising to learn that the agricultural sector has been hit particularly hard the past three years. For example, the price of hay increased 200 percent during the worst periods of the drought, corn output fell by 40 percent, and 83 percent of all Texas ranchers who reduced their herd size did so by an average of about 40 percent.
But the drought has done much more than hurt farmers and raise food prices. In January 2012, the small town of Spicewood Beach completely ran out of water. The residents of the small town near Austin became entirely dependent upon an emergency supply operation by the Lower Colorado River Authority to truck water into the town, and construction of a new surface water treatment plant has still not been completed. In June, the primary water reservoirs for the Central Texas region were less than 40 percent of their capacity. In fact, near the end of September, water reservoirs for the entire state reached all-time lows. While it’s normal for water reservoirs to be at less than full capacity at this time of year, they are now only 59 percent full across the state.
desert Photo by Paul Lowry
What’s more, many cities and communities are experiencing a population boom that has left some wondering where water will come from. Just recently, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) approved the first permits since 1985 for the construction of a lake that would be a water supply. The North Texas Metroplex is estimated to require an additional 520 billion gallons a year by 2060. This area has some of the highest per capita water usage rates in the state, at around 207 gallons per person per day. While awareness is increasing, efforts to curb water usage have varied across the state. San Antonio, in particular, has drawn praise by managing to decrease water demand while its population has expanded. On the other end of the spectrum, Dallas has drawn criticism on its conservation efforts, such as restricting lawn-watering to two days a week, but only issuing eleven fines in two years for less than one percent of the operating cost of the violators.
So what’s happening here at Texas A&M to alleviate water shortage problems? While it may sometimes seem wasteful to see the regular watering of concrete across campus, Texas A&M has actually been exceptionally water frugal. Since 1991, when TAMU’s annual water use reached its peak at 3.5 billion gallons per year, total annual water use has decreased by over fifty percent to 1.5 billion gallons in 2010 despite a 43 percent increase in the square footage of campus and the year-over-year increase in number of students. According to the Utilities and Energy Services Department, the reduction was achieved by several efforts including upgrading infrastructure and plumbing, increasing automation and management of water systems, a new disinfectant system, and the expanded use of non-potable water, such as for watering the university golf course, instead of drinking water.