Drought takes emotional toll; some praying for rain

Conservation efforts ramped up throughout U.S.

TEXAS - When Laura Gillis looks at Lake Nasworthy, she sees a sea of brown, parched land.

“If we don’t get rain soon, I fear San Angelo is going to blow away and be a ghost town,” she said, her voice trembling.

Hoping each day for rain, Gillis prays.

“One day, God will provide -- maybe he’s trying to teach us something,” she said. “I’m not giving up.”

Gillis is not alone in these efforts. On April 12, more than a thousand people from 17 different churches intertwined hands in the city of San Angelo to pray for rain in the afternoon. Shirts donated to the event read, “I’ve been around the block a time or two with the Lord in downtown San Angelo, Texas.”

The group united emotionally with hopes that droplets will soon fall from the sky.

But Gillis says praying once won’t do the trick when the lakes are so dry.

Her photography studio depends heavily on the rain to keep the backgrounds lush and presentable for pictures. Influenced by her mother, who is 93 and lived through the Dust Bowl, she pours water from her bath and her washing machine directly into her outdoor studio to keep the trees alive. Gillis hopes others will follow her and conserve water when they can.

She doesn’t believe in global warming, but understands that weather changes and said perhaps the city is just going through a strange weather pattern.  

“It’s really sad… I just don’t know where to go,” she said. “This is our life. We have property and a business here. I know that before it runs out, we will get rain. I have faith in that.”

Farmers hope for change

At 68 years old, Steve Young has seen some of the worst Texas droughts and weather, but he said it’s getting tougher and tougher to deal with the drying situations across Wichita Falls.

For 17 years, Young has sold pecans, peaches and apples from his 104-acre farm, Young’s Orchard — 50 of which are currently in full production. In total, the drought has caused 2 percent of his trees to become damaged, leaving limbs broken and some dead. He said the damage to the trees, many of which are around his age, is going to take 70-plus years to restore. That wait isn’t feasible, he said, especially with the regular demand for his fruits and vegetables at the Wichita Falls Farmers Market.

In January and February, Young plants the trees and said the roots won’t dry out as long as you get them into the ground and water them as quick as possible. Because of irrigation wells, he’s able to keep his fruits and vegetable plants thriving, but this isn’t the case for many farmers.

Retired county agent Gary Bomar, who owns a 600-acre ranch in Abilene, is one who is feeling the pain of the dry spell. If it doesn’t rain, he said he may have to cut his cattle herd by 50 percent.

“Bottom line, I spend more money on feed and the possibility of income,” he said.

Young said he’s seen people selling water in his area to make money. Each week, he buys three 16-ounce cases of drinking water and understands that his resources are precious.

“We don’t want to become a desert because somebody else took all of our water. I believe that greed and gluttony, well, they would absolutely destroy our farms, whether it be for their own needs to go swimming or to sell it,” he said, in regard to people who are selling water to those in need.

Young said he’s frustrated with the lack of consideration in Washington among politicians for the emotions that people like himself have regarding this drought, which has taken a toll not just physically, but emotionally on those living through the situation.

As for the future, Young said he will continue to pray and hopes that one day, rain will come.

A dry land

Texas has some of the most extreme weather in the country. More rain falls in the eastern part of the state (a little less than 60 inches a year). That number slowly decreases moving west, with less than 10 inches in the far west near the borders of New Mexico and Mexico.

Steve Lyons, meteorologist in charge at the San Angelo National Weather Service Forecast office, said Texas has a problem climate, built around the drought threat.

According to the Texas Water Development Board, the hot and dry spring of summer 2011 caused most of the dryland crops in West Texas to fail and a record pumping of groundwater to irrigate crops in the High Plains.

In San Angelo, around this time, there’s usually more than 5 inches of rain. This year, there was less than an inch of rain. Similarly, in Dallas, around this time, there’s usually more than 12 inches of rain. Now, there has been a little less than 4 inches of rain.

Global warming is rapidly changing Americans’ daily lives, according to the latest federal report on climate change. The report points out extreme weather such as storms, heat waves and droughts, which are expected to get stronger.

“Climate has and always will change. Our understanding of how long-term changes, or, those changes that occur over hundreds of years is based on science, or the physics of how emissions from our cars, our refineries, cement production interact with the air,” said Kathy A. Hibbard, one of the lead authors for the National Climate Assessment chapter on Energy, Water and Land Use (Chapter 10). “It’s important to understand that weather events, or wondering if it is going to rain tomorrow or not is different from climate, which is the study of how long term events, such as El Nino, impacts temperature, wind, and rainfall.”

Meteorologists are predicting a strong El Niño in 2014, which may mean greater rainfall in parts of Texas. El Niño is an area of warm ocean water temperatures that periodically develops off the Pacific coast of South America. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts persistent drought throughout the summer.

Since 2005, most of the state has seen annual rainfall deficits every year except for 2007. The year 2011 was especially difficult with drought conditions.

Here’s a breakdown of rainfall year to year:

Mobile users click here.

Breaking down the latest report

For Texas, the biggest concern is increased evaporation from the hotter summers, says Mark Shafer, associate state climatologist at Oklahoma Climate Survey and one of the authors on the Great Plains chapter of the latest climate report.

“Summer 2011 was absolutely horrible,” he said. “By the end of the century, summer 2011 will be more like an average summer rather than an extreme.”

These types of extreme weather will impact energy production. The biggest challenge is water distribution, which takes a lot of resources.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as some paint it to be, he said. If El Niño develops, that could come into play in the fall and potentially do a lot for Texas’ dry land.

“There’s technology, policy and economic changes — climate is just a piece of this,” he said about those who remain skeptical about the report. “All of these places will find a way to adapt. This is just a roadmap. The roadmap may not tell you where all the bumps are, but will tell when curves are coming.”

He urged people to be optimistic and just be prepared. Instead of dwelling on the past, it’s best to focus on how to prepare for the next spell, he said.

“Locally, we can choose to conserve water knowing that we will have more challenges down the road,” he said. “We can pretend its not happening, but it’s still going to happen. But in the end, there are a lot of things you can’t predict.”

Planning instead of hoping

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, each retail public water supplier and wholesale public water supplier in the state of Texas is required to prepare and maintain a drought contingency plan and to report to the agency when mandatory stages of their plans are enacted. These plans aim to help conserve water where it is needed most. For example, a water system may begin with asking citizens to voluntarily reduce outside watering followed by mandatory limitations of watering only once a week or once every other week.

Additionally, every five years, the Texas Water Development Board publishes the state water plan to look at the state’s water supply for the next 50 years. The most recent plan points to conserving 710 billion gallons per year and develop 2.9 trillion gallons per year of new water by 2060. In 2011, Austin used 53 billion gallons.

With growing population and demand for water, future droughts will be more challenging, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

The board said people can help by supporting their water providers in the development of a resilient portfolio of water supplies.

Officials say people can start conserving water in several ways, including reusing water used for brushing teeth, washing clothes and dishes. People can also choose to opt for no lawn.

“Texans are no strangers to extreme weather,” said Hibbard. “The recent drought, flood and hurricanes, even snow during the 1993 Thanksgiving football game are all a part of what makes that state so resilient. The more we understand our past and present, and clearly define where we want to be in the future with an open mind, the better prepared we will be to make informed decisions.”

Since 2008, in coordination with the city of San Angelo, Christy Youker, education director at the Upper Colorado River Authority, has worked on educating people about the drought.  The city has a 13-1/2 month supply of water left.

“When your lakes are dry, it’ll make you move pretty fast,” she said.

The city is working on a plan to change the way water is conserved.

Youker said the drought began the churning of the wheels in people’s minds, and that they, along with the city, need to step up to have a plan in place for additional resources.

"I think we’ve always learned it’s better to have a plan than just hope,” she said. “I think this requires mobilizing people to take better care and figure out how to share this resource. It’s a good community builder."

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