AUSTIN, Texas — Less than eight months after Hurricane Harvey pelted the Texas Gulf Coast with torrential rainfall, drought has returned to Texas and other parts of the West, Southwest and Southeast, fueling old worries for residents who dealt with earlier waves of dry spells and once again forcing state governments to reckon with how to keep the water flowing.
Nearly a third of the continental United States was in drought as of April 10, more than three times the coverage of a year ago. And the specter of a drought-ridden summer has focused renewed urgency on state and local conservation efforts, some of which would fundamentally alter Americans’ behavior in how they use water.
In California, for example, officials are considering rules to permanently ban water-wasting actions such as hosing off sidewalks and driveways, washing a vehicle with a hose that doesn’t have a shut-off valve, and irrigating ornamental turf on public street medians. The regulations, awaiting a final decision by the California State Water Resources Control Board, were in force as temporary emergency measures during part of a devastating five-year drought but were lifted in 2017 after the drought subsided.
Water restrictions, forced or voluntary, are nothing new to states and communities where battling drought is often a part of life. In Amarillo, Texas, the city’s water department stresses conservation with the message “every drop counts,” and urges customers to do “at least one thing a day to save water.” A similar mantra — “squeeze every drop” — is part of the water-saving culture in Oklahoma City, where officials enforce mandatory lawn-watering restrictions and impose higher rates for excessive water use.
Years of studies by government and environmental groups have warned that demand for water is threatening to outstrip availability, particularly in the drought-plagued West and Southwest, unless policymakers take steps to reverse those trends.
“More and more cities around the world are running into limits on how much water they have available to meet their needs,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute and an expert on water and climate issues.
To understand the potential dangers, U.S. officials might look halfway around the world, to parched Cape Town, South Africa, where residents this year faced a crisis that seems straight from science fiction. After three years of drought, the city of 4 million spent months united in a struggle to fend off Day Zero, when Cape Town was projected to become the world’s first major urban center to run out of water.
Residents skimped on dishwashing and laundry, took minishowers, washed their hands with sanitizer, flushed the toilet with leftover shower water and made numerous sacrifices to daily routines.
The day of reckoning was originally expected to fall in mid-April, but was postponed to May and then to June.
Government and environmental experts generally agree that no major city is in imminent danger of the kind of scenario confronting Cape Town. But residents in some small communities have struggled, and at the same time, U.S. experts worry that worsening droughts, vanishing groundwater and growing populations will erode supplies and make Americans increasingly vulnerable throughout the 21st century.
Two small communities, East Porterville in California and Spicewood Beach in Texas, drew national attention during their states’ droughts after their wells ran dry and outsiders came to the rescue with water deliveries. As many as 30 other Texas communities came close to running out of water during the drought, according to press reports.
“Things were grim. I didn’t get water for 20 months,” recalls Jim Burr, a peace justice and 33-year resident of Terlingua, a small community of about 800 people in the remote Big Bend region of Texas. After his 16-foot-deep well ran dry during the height of the last drought, Burr was forced to dig another that extended 45 feet deep.