AUSTIN – As experts nervously watch mounting threats of record drought in Texas, several truths are evident: (1) when water won’t fall from the sky, what comes out of the ground is critical, (2) there are important things people can do to prepare to weather a drought, but when you’re in one the only quick fix is rain and (3) there are still parks, lakes and spring-fed rivers with water where folks can beat the dry heat.
Last month was the hottest June ever recorded in Texas. At this point, the current drought is the third worst on record based on the Palmer Drought Index, behind the droughts of 1916-1918 and 1951-1957.The Texas drought map is a sea of red, with almost the entire state in extreme to exceptional drought, except for about 10 counties in northeast Texas. What’s worse, little relief is predicted, and some forecasts show a strengthening of La Niña weather conditions this fall, which could prolong the drought.
“What’s on my mind is with continued lack of rainfall we could see impacts on fish and wildlife that could be apparent for years to come,” said Cindy Loeffler, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s top water resource expert.
“That’s based on reports from our wildlife biologists on poor recruitment of young of the year, very poor available food such as mast for deer and bugs for birds to eat, not to mention lack of drinking water. With fish, when you see these historically low levels of stream flows, we begin to see fish kills from low dissolved oxygen and high temperature.”
Across the state, many springs and rivers are trickling and Texas lake levels are way down. In the west, some reservoirs have gone practically bone-dry, including O.C Fisher near San Angelo.
“If this goes on much longer we’re going to have some dry springs, without a doubt,” said Chad Norris, a TPWD water resource scientist who’s spent the last few years studying the status of springs across the state, including many on private ranches.
“One big problem is impacts to endemic and rare species, many of which are isolated to these small springs and are found nowhere else. We might not lose an entire species, but we could lose local populations that could push them toward extinction.”
Norris said people underestimate the importance of small springs. Even in drought-dried creeks, they sustain isolated pools of water, and while that’s not ideal habitat, if you’re an aquatic species or even a terrestrial mammal looking for water, it’s critical.
“Those spring-fed pools may be what will keep our common wildlife species common. The bass, sunfish and minnows, the fish communities in our streams, they need somewhere to hold on, so they can repopulate the creek when rain finally returns.”
Spring flows at San Marcos and Comal Springs, two of the largest springs in the Southwestern U.S., are declining due to drought and groundwater withdrawal from the Edwards Aquifer. There are eight threatened or endangered species that depend directly on the Edwards Aquifer system: the fountain darter, San Marcos salamander, San Marcos gambusia, Texas blind salamander, Peck’s cave amphipod, Comal Springs dryopid beetle, Comal Springs riffle beetle, and Texas wild-rice. The San Marcos gambusia, last collected in the wild in 1983, may already be extinct.
These rare creatures evolved to withstand periodic droughts, but human activity, particularly increased groundwater pumping, is changing the equation.
“Jacob’s Well is a great example,” said Norris. “Recently its flow was down to one tenth of a cubic feet per second (CFS), but it popped back up when groundwater pumping restrictions went in, though still below one CFS, very low. The real trick is groundwater use, and the fact that there are so many more of us now.”
Primary threats to aquifer-dependent species are intermittent loss of habitat from reduced spring flows, water pollution, and competition from non-native, invasive species. The good news is there are efforts underway to plan for drought and wisely manage the groundwater that sustains people and wildlife, such as the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan.
These days, you can track how much water’s flowing in most Texas rivers online, thanks to flow gauges tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey. Interestingly, when you look at the USGS Map of Daily Streamflow offering historical comparisons, about half the state shows green dots indicating normal flow. Of course, the other half are the red of dry desperation, such as the Llano River at Llano with only about 4 percent of its normal/median flow, and even the upper Sabine in wetter East Texas near 14 percent.
San Marcos and Comal springs are also the headwaters of the San Marcos and Comal Rivers and provide important base flows, especially during drought, to the Guadalupe River and its coastal estuary. The endangered whooping crane breeds in northern Canada and winters on the Texas coast, and high salinities caused by low freshwater inflows are a stressor for whooping cranes. Extreme droughts can limit their preferred foods like blue crabs and wolfberries, and can force cranes to fly to uplands to drink, using more energy and exposing birds to more predator threats and other mortality factors. Whooping crane mortality and Guadalupe-San Antonio River discharge data over the last 20 years show that high mortality winters are associated with low water discharges.
On land, animals are on the move, going where the food and water are, sometimes in urban areas. Alligator sightings are increasing in the eastern part of the state as they search for dwindling habitat. Normally nocturnal animals like foxes and skunks are being spotted during the day, raising concerns about rabies transmission.
Without rain relief, deer recruitment will be poor this year. Deer have been eating their summer forage, and there may not be anything left later in the summer. Turkey populations may also be down due to lack of food and cover. On well-managed ranches where native grasses are healthy, wildlife may weather the drought better than in previously overgrazed areas.
Drought can actually mean better hunting and fishing in some cases. Shrinking surface water and habitat can concentrate fish and game, making them easier to find; this could be the case with coastal waterfowl, for example. But there can be a tradeoff in resource impacts from taking too many vulnerable animals in certain areas, and these situations rely on responsible stewardship from hunter/anglers.
Likewise, water recreation continues to lure Texans to rivers, lakes, spring-fed swimming holes, and state parks with water features, air-conditioned cabins and the like. State Parks with constant-level lakes have seen an increase in visitation. Texas is blessed with marvelous spring-fed rivers, which are crowded with paddlers and tubers.
However, low lake levels and stream flows have made recreational access difficult. Many boat ramps have closed as water levels decrease. Boaters who do manage to launch sometimes find a smaller surface area, and safety becomes a concern as lakes get crowded and hazards such as trees and sand bars are exposed.
Contact recreation can pose health hazards if water quality is poor. For example, primary amebic meningoencephalitis or PAM is a rare but sometimes deadly disease that can be caused when water is forced up the nose while diving, jumping or water skiing. Symptoms may include severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting. The state health department advises people not to swim or ski in stagnant water, and to hold their nose or use nose clips when skiing, jet skiing or jumping into fresh water.
All this said, the situation could change markedly for the better with rainfall from tropical storms, and Texas is now in peak hurricane season.
Record drought tends to focus the mind on the need for water planning. While some look at ways to enhance water supply, others emphasize conservation to better use what we already have.
“The big gamble we take in the water planning business is we assume the worst drought we’ll ever see will be no worse than the ’drought of record’ that occurred in the 1950s,” said Loeffler. “But we know, based on tree ring data, Texas has weathered ’mega-droughts’ worse than the drought of the 1950s. Some weather experts are wondering if our current drought could be the ‘new normal.’”
While the vital but long-term process of water planning rolls on, there are things every Texan can do now. Besides practical steps like rainwater harvesting and low-flow shower heads, folks can convert water-sucking lawns to native Texas Wildscapes. Native Texas plants that evolved to withstand droughts are attractive and require less water, time and money. In rural areas, TPWD wildlife biologists can advise landowners on ways to manage land to weather drought and benefit people and wildlife.
“Water conservation has got to be a bigger part of the answer for Texas,” Loeffler said. “Just because water comes out of the kitchen tap like magic doesn’t mean it’s a limitless resource. It’s time we started treating every drop as precious.”
The recently created Texas drought task force website provides a good suite of links to drought-and wildfire-related public information. It also bundles news reports from multiple sources involving agriculture, wildlife, wildfire and other topics.