Imagine a Texas where reclaimed wastewater for human consumption is commonplace and where skyrocketing utility rates could limit the amount of electricity used in your home or business every day. Consider a time when farms and ranches are abandoned because of water shortages and consumption of desalinated sea water and reduced industrial production are normal, and where buying rights for groundwater use becomes common.

It sounds like a cheesy plot to another disaster movie, but just such a scenario has been offered up in a new report by Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs, titled “Gauging the Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond.”

The report, released Feb. 9, discusses the current drought and its impacts on the state, current and future water resources in Texas, and innovative solutions governments in Texas and elsewhere are using to solve the water crisis.

“Our water resources are finite. Planning for and managing our water use is perhaps the most important task facing Texas policymakers in the 21st century,” Combs writes in the report.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the negative impact of last year’s drought. Farmers have lost crops, ranchers have culled herds, water rationing became a standard for most communities last year and even the state’s power grid suffered outages as a result of extreme heat and lack of water. But comparative data in Comb’s recent report paints a more graphic picture of just how bad the drought has been—and how bad it could become. The report compares rainfall rates of several West Texas cities last year to those of areas noted for extreme dry regions.

Scary comparisons

For example, at the end of last year Amarillo had received a total annual rainfall of only 5.8 inches. The report compares that to the 2011 rainfall rate in Damascus, Syria, of 5.3 inches. Del Rio received 9.6 inches of rain and can be compared to Tehran, Iran, that received 9.1 inches for the same period. The report also compares El Paso’s 4.9 inches of rain to Baghdad’s 4.8 inches, Lubbock’s 5.1 inches to Khartoum, Sudan’s (North Africa) 4.8, and Midland/Odessa’s 4.6 inches to Kuwait’s 4.6 inches.

In fact, as of Oct. 1 last year, Texas as a whole had received only about 11inches of rain for the year on average, less than the average annual rainfall rate of the semi-arid desert regions of Tunisia and Morocco.

Perhaps the most startling reality of last year’s drought, however, is the negative economic impact to Texas agriculture. While a Texas AgriLife study indicated a $5.2 billion loss for the state’s agricultural industry in 2011, Comb’s report points to an economic analysis by BBVA Compass Bank which found that indirect drought losses to the state’s agricultural industries could add another $3.5 billion to the toll.

Texas State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, calls the current record drought a serious threat to water resources that, if conditions continue or worsen, could accelerate economic and social lifestyles of every state resident.

“Drought is an ever-present concern in many parts of the state, leading to pressure on our water infrastructure. According to the Texas Water Development Board, demand for water will rise by 22 percent by 2060. The board says that, should we experience another multi-year “drought of record” such as that of the 1950s, it could cost Texas businesses and workers $116 billionin income by 2060,” Combs says in the report.

Megadrought

While the new report spotlights the current drought, of greater significance is the threat of what the report terms a “megadrought,” an extremely dry and prolonged disaster that could last for years instead of months.

According to the report, severe drought is nothing new in Texas. Cycles of drought have plagued the region for millennia, devastating vegetation and wildlife and making survival difficult for human inhabitants as well.

In the 12th century, for instance, much of the Southwest suffered through a decades-long drought, and another in the second century lasted for nearly 50 years. The report says these megadroughts appear to be infrequent but recurring down through history.

A recent chart released by the Texas Water Resources Institute documents regular cycles of severe drought dating back to 1750. The worse periods of extended drought occurred in the middle of both the 19th and 20th centuries. In each case, drought conditions prevailed for a number of consecutive years. If this were to happen again and Texas were to receive half of its “normal” average annual rainfall for two decades, for example, experts say our semi-tropical regions would become arid, while our semi-arid regions would become desert.

While the current drought has taken its toll on agriculture, recent rains give hope that the current drought may be in decline. But in spite of the latest forecast models that suggest late spring and summer may see the return of more normal rainfall across most of the Southwest, Comb’s report that increased demand for water and the growing need for new water resources gives rise to fear that the day is coming when water availability will become our number one social and economic problem.

The report points to Texas’ rapidly growing urban areas and their increased demand for water. The largest anticipated increases in demand will be for municipal water systems, manufacturing plants and power generators. Add to that declining groundwater supplies, which are expected to fall by 30 percent between 2010 and 2060, from 8 million acre-feet to 5.7 million acre-feet, and it becomes obvious water resources are the number one priority for a region experiencing the growth rate of Texas and the Southwest.

You can access the study online at http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/drought/pdf/96-1704-Drought.pdf