Scene From A Drought

A trip to Texas shows the unexpected consequences of a severe drought

A nearly dry horseshoe lake at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
A nearly dry horseshoe lake at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Photo by Sarah Zielinski

“What is this, rain? I was promised a drought,” I joked to a friend as we drove through ten seconds of drizzle this weekend in Houston. I needn’t have worried–the rest of the day was sunny and warm. It was a pleasant diversion from the cooler temperatures of a mid-Atlantic fall, but in Texas, warm and dry has become a real worry. The entire state is in the midst of an exceptionally bad drought, as you’ve probably read in the news. But what does that look like on the ground?

In Houston itself, there isn’t too much evidence of the drought. Sure, the lawns and plants may look a little brown in places, and there’s the occasional sign notifying people of watering restrictions. But if your vision of drought is wildfires or the Sahara Desert, you’re bound to be disappointed.

An alligator suns itself on the edge of Elm Lake (photo by Sarah Zielinski)

Even outside the city things don’t seem so bad at first glance. It’s a bit dusty, and the cows are munching on bits of grass in rather brown fields. When we started walking around Brazos Bend State Park, however, the drought quickly made itself known. One horseshoe lake had water and made a nice home for several alligators, but the other was full of dead vegetation and had only one tiny little patch of water, barely suitable for small birds looking for a drink. The park’s largest body of water, Elm Lake, which appears as a large patch of blue on a map of hiking trails, had shrunk around the edges and the shallow water was often covered in a nasty green algae. On the bright side, the alligators clustered near the water along the edge of the lake, which made them easy for us to find.

The effects of a drought come in ways we often don’t expect. Migrating birds will be fewer in Texas this year, and they’ll have fewer places to stop. That will give hunters fewer opportunities to pursue their hobby. Migrating monarch butterflies will find it more difficult to cross the state on their way to Mexico; they’ve already had a bad year, dealing with the drought in the spring and a cooler summer around the Great Lakes. Cattle ranchers have sold off parts of their herds; with grass and water scarce, and importing hay from other states expensive, they can’t afford to keep so many animals. The price of beef, and other foodstuffs, will likely rise. Even drought-tolerant plants are not immune from a drought this bad. Power generation, heavily dependent on water, could take a hit. Communities are opposing new projects that would use up the little water available.

The last 12 months have been the driest since record-keeping began in 1895. And a few inches of rain will do little to alleviate the precipitation backlog (26 inches in Central Texas). But Texas, even the United States, isn’t alone in this problem. Climate change will likely bring more droughts around the world. As I reported last year in Smithsonian:

Other regions—the Mediterranean, southern Africa, parts of South America and Asia—also face fresh-water shortages, perhaps outright crises. In the Andes Mountains of South America, glaciers are melting so quickly that millions of people in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador are expected to lose a major source of fresh water by 2020. In southwestern Australia, which is in the midst of its worst drought in 750 years, fresh water is so scarce the city of Perth is building plants to remove the salt from seawater. More than one billion people around the world now live in water-stressed regions, according to the World Health Organization, a number that is expected to double by 2050, when an estimated nine billion people will inhabit the planet.

“There’s not enough fresh water to handle nine billion people at current consumption levels,” says Patricia Mulroy, a board member of the Colorado-based Water Research Foundation, which promotes the development of safe, affordable drinking water worldwide. People need a “fundamental, cultural attitude change about water supply in the Southwest,” she adds. “It’s not abundant, it’s not reliable, it’s not going to always be there.”

Water, either too much or too little, is one of the biggest problems we can blame on climate change. At least in places like the United States and Australia, there is enough money for a drought to be no more than an inconvenience. In other parts of the world, however, water problems are going to end in human deaths.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.