Feature Stories

We Are Here for Texas: Helping the State Prepare for Drought of 2012

map of Texas drought

From June to August 2011, Texas experienced the hottest summer in the recorded history of the U.S. Simultaneously, the total volume of water stored in Texas surface water reservoirs dropped by the largest amount ever recorded. As a result, the power-generating system was greatly strained and a significant part of our state remains in drought conditions. More than a thousand Texas communities have applied voluntary or mandatory water conservation measures to conserve their water supply.

CAEE Professor David Maidment has been using his expertise to help the state of Texas prepare for water supply conditions that are in a much more vulnerable condition than they were this time last year. His research includes water use forecasting; expert systems and statistical techniques in hydrology and water resources planning; and geographic information systems (GIS).

Last year, UT-Austin formed the new Center for Integrated Earth System Science (CIESS) directed by Maidment and Dr. Zong-Liang Yang from the Jackson School of Geosciences. The goal of the center is to integrate the university's strengths in earth system modeling, observing and monitoring, computational science and engineering, supercomputing, air resources engineering, hydrology and water resources, sedimentology and depositional processes, energy/policy, outreach/communications, and other fields.

In February 2012, CIESS held its first held public event, the Texas Water Forum, to begin dialogue about the state's drought-preparedness. At the forum, representatives from public water agencies presented their assessments of the drought. Panelists included John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist, and Gabriela Stermolle, a planner from the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Additionally, representatives from UT-Austin spoke about their research and how it can contribute to solutions. For instance, researchers have already shown that weather and climate model outputs can be translated into streamflows, and this prototype could be extended so that the flow of water in all the rivers and streams of Texas can be computed simultaneously.

With better understanding and computation of the teleconnections between global causes and local effects, the intensity and duration of droughts can be better predicted. "We can't change the physical circumstances that we are dealing with, but we can change how we react to them," says Maidment. "If we are reactive instead of proactive, there will be a loss of faith in elected leaders and technical advisors. It is important for universities to demonstrate to stakeholders and government that we are on the job. We are here for Texas."

Integration of data, which includes better synthesis of water information and modeling, and leveraging what the federal government is already doing will also help the state tackle this issue. Supercomputers such as UT's Ranger and the new Stampede (currently under construction at the Pickle Research Center) could be utilized to create a Texas water information system that can be continuously updated. Maidment hopes that these facilities and supercomputers will attract private investment in water research, planning, and conservation tools.

At the forum, a large-scale Texas Water Model, connected to weather and climate models, was proposed. State water agencies, industry and universities would work collaboratively to continually trace the volume and movement of water through the state so that officials are better-equipped to manage weather-related demands on the energy-water nexus.

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Doctoral student Ashlynn Stillwell (MSCE 2010/MPA 2010) also understands the important role engineers play in guiding public policy decisions related to energy, environment, and infrastructure. She participated in a dual-degree program offered by the Cockrell School of Engineering and the LBJ School of Public Affairs, which prepares students to become technical leaders who address policy issues. While earning this degree, she concentrated on integrated environmental management: the connection between water used for cooling thermoelectric plants and industrial processes; and energy used for water and wastewater collection, treatment, distribution, disinfection and heating.

Stillwell is now continuing her studies as a graduate research assistant for Michael Webber's energy group at UT Austin, a research collective which analyzes energy problems at the intersection of science, engineering, and public policy. Her recent work includes expanding on her case studies which examine the effects of possible policy decisions regarding energy and water in Texas. She is also developing a model of water use at Texas power plants using different cooling technologies. Her expertise has become invaluable to CIESS and the Texas Legislature.

To view Stillwell's water use model, which was featured in the Highlights of 2011 of the journal Environmental Research Letters, please click here.

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As Maidment and many others have realized, a unity between the scientific community and government is increasingly integral. The Texas Water Forum launched important discussions as to how this can be done.

"The state has built up a good infrastructure for supporting long-term water planning," says Maidment. "However, the current drought has exposed the fact that we lack an equivalent capacity at the state-wide level to understand what is going on now and have appropriate drought contingency planning. So we need to ensure that we build an adequate infrastructure across our many dispersed institutions to provide the required information in a timely manner."

As of now, drought emergency status will continue. Even if the 2012 drought is not as bad, reliable water sources for consumption and energy use are still dangerously low. But citizens can be reassured that many experts and policy makers are working together to find solutions to address drought planning and management in our state.

For Texas drought and resources updates, please visit: www.texasdroughtinfo.org.