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Drought gets Texas to focus on water needs

Image: dried up stock tank near Taylor, Texas
This cattle stock tank near Taylor, Texas, was all dried up on Feb. 19.Matt Felder / Texas Farm Bureau via AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

With the Texas population expected to nearly double over the next 50 years, lawmakers and water experts gathered Monday to convey an important message: We're running out of water.

There is no shortage of alarming statistics to make that point. Texas' population of about 24.3 million is expected to hit about 45.5 million by 2060, and the water supply can't come close to keeping pace.

If the state were to experience major drought conditions with that many more people, officials estimate almost every Texan would be without sufficient water and there would be more than $90 billion in economic losses.

"We're going to have 18 percent less water than we do now if we don't do anything," said state Sen. Kip Averitt, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources. "Now what happens in a severe drought? Eighty-five percent of our citizens don't have enough water to maintain a healthy lifestyle."

Lawmakers and water planners are trying to raise awareness about the issue and the importance of the 2011 Legislature investing in changes called for in the state water plan. Among the moves the plan calls for are the construction of 19 new reservoirs, water reuse programs, more pipelines, desalinization plants and conservation methods.

Goal to double supply
"I don't think people realize how important it is for us over the next 30 to 40 years to double our potable water supplies," said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican who said water is among the top priorities in the next legislative session.

People did get a recent reminder of how significant water is in the two years of severe drought that parched south-central Texas starting in September 2007.

The drought cost about $3.6 billion in agriculture losses, prompted hundreds of water districts across the state to restrict water usage and dried up lakes and streams. People were comparing it to the drought of record in Texas in the 1950s.

"Drought is what brings awareness," said J. Kevin Ward, executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, which oversees the state's water resources. "Suddenly, people realize in a very concrete way what's going to happen if they don't do something."

The hardest-hit areas in the recent drought were concentrated in south-central Texas. Only a tiny percentage of that area is now under the worst drought conditions, thanks to recent rains — but about a quarter of the state remains in some stage of drought.

Still, water officials are charged with making plans for the worst-case scenario.

"It can happen and will happen again," Averitt said. "We want to have drought-proof water supplies so we don't have to turn off power plants. That could happen if we're not prepared."