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The History of Droughts in Texas

The welcomed significant rainfall in north Texas last week may have temporarily taken our minds off the recent drought conditions in our locality. But let’s take a brief big-picture look at the history of droughts in our very big Lone Star state. The Glossary of Meteorology defines drought as “periods of abnormally dry weather sufficiently prolonged for the lack of water to produce a serious hydrologic imbalance in the affected area”. Generally speaking, there appear to have been about 15 major statewide droughts over the last 140 years. Their durations have been as little as one year and as long as seven years. Since 1870, the interval between the end of one drought period and the onset of the next has varied from as little as about three (3) years to as long as about 17 years.

The Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI) at TAMU has compiled a “timeline” of extreme drought-related weather and heat events. Below are some interesting excerpts illustrating that while issues and challenges have always been with us, the solutions necessary to attempt to balance future water supply with future water demand have become more complex as the state’s population has grown. At the end of the list are some state population and water demand projections reflecting the probable magnitude of the complexities that will be facing water resource engineers in the future.

1822 - Stephen F. Austin’s first colonists’ initial food crop of corn dies from lack of moisture.

1854 – The introduction of the windmill proves crucial to the survival of farmers in Texas’ semiarid High Plains region. (FYI, the population of Texas was roughly 400,000).

1857 - On the plains of West Texas, John Pope begins experimenting with drilling for artesian wells.

1914 - The Paddock Viaduct in Fort Worth is completed.

1917 - Drought stimulates renewed interest in constructing storage reservoirs for irrigation. (Population of Texas roughly 4.3 million).

1933 - Lowest Temperature is recorded in Seminole on February 8 at -23°F.

1934 - The “Dust Bowl” stretches from the Panhandle to the Great Plains.

1936 - A highest temperature record of 120°F is reached in Seymour on August 12.

1938 - LCRA board of directors approves the installation of 50 rain gauges, which initiates the first comprehensive watershed reporting system in Texas.

1950 to 1957 - Drought of record begins; 7.7 million people live in Texas. President Eisenhower declares 244 of the state’s 254 counties as drought disaster counties in 1956.

1968 - TWDB adopts second state water plan; recommends 62 new reservoirs and addresses issues surrounding drainage, water quality, recreation, and fish and wildlife.

1980 - The state has 179 major reservoirs.

1995 to 1996 - Drought; causes greater economic losses to agriculture than any previously recorded one-year drought.

2001 - The Rio Grande stops flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

2010 to 2011 - October 2010-September 2011 averages 11.18 “, the driest 12-month period recorded in Texas. (The state has about 196 major reservoirs.)

2020 - Texas’ population is projected to be 29.7 million; projected water demand is 19 million acre-feet per year.

2040 - Texas’ population is projected to be 37.7 million; projected water demand is 20.5 million acre-feet per year.

2060 - Texas’ population is projected to be 46.3 million; projected water demand is 22.0 million acre-feet per year.

- John P. Wier, P.E., R.P.L.S., Historical Chair, Fort Worth Branch ASCE, January 2012

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