That declaration came from Mike Bewley, the supervisor of the division of emergency management, part of the Department of Public Safety.
Bewley – who appears as a dynamic mixture of Telly Savalas and a high school football coach – was one of 14 speakers at the annual South Texas Drought and Fire Weather Symposium hosted by the National Weather Service office here. It was conducted recently on the West Campus of Del Mar College.
Bewley was the 10th speaker, and by then, in mid-afternoon, the audience of law enforcement officers, firemen, emergency management people had thinned.
Those who left missed the high point of the symposium. In 35 seconds, Bewley showed two satellite images of Texas, captured a year apart. The first, taken Aug. 29, 2010, showed a state Irish green with lush vegetation.
In the second image, exactly a year later, most of the state is a study in tan and beige, the only green in far east Texas.
The effect on the audience was immediate.
“Geez,” someone said.
“Five million trees in Texas died last year,” Bewley said.
At an earlier session, State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M University-College Station, pegged the official start of the current drought as two days before the first satellite image was taken.
“Aug. 27, 2010, was the date of the last wet system that passed through the state,” he said.
By 2011, a drought monitor map showed most of Texas shaded in orange, red and burnt umber. “We really needed a couple of extra colors,” he said.
Nielsen-Gammon’s presentation, highly scientific, dealt mostly with the causes of the drought, including ocean temperatures in the Pacific and climate change.
But Bewley focused on the effects – and he outlined them in graphic language.
“The drought has changed the status of my job,” he said. “Now, I’m a consequence manager.”
Such as wildfires.
“Wildfires were up 100 percent between 2009 and 2010,” he said. “In the Bastrop fire, near Austin, in two days, 1,850 homes were burned. That was after only three months of drought. That didn’t challenge our emergency management – it crushed it. This drought is off the charts, unprecedented, unpredictable.”
The current reservoir levels statewide –Beeville’s source of water is Lake Corpus Christi, which is at 15 percent of capacity – is threatening the state’s electrical grid. Forty to 45 percent of the state’s surface water is used by electrical power plants.
These are plants that someday would be expected to power desalinization facilities.
Hopes for rain from a tropical disturbance, a cold front or a stalled front – “it doesn’t have to be a hurricane” — did not occur last year.
Every Monday at 1 p.m., Nielsen-Gammon conducts a conference call with emergency managers statewide to give an update on the drought and its effect on the state’s water supply.
“The word of the day,” Bewley said, “is always three same: degrading, degrading, degrading. The state is dry. Not moderately dry,” he warned, “but historically dry, as dry as the 1950s drought-of-record dry.”
An example, Bewley said, is the expected snowmelt in northeastern New Mexico, which feeds water into the Rio Grande.
“All the watersheds are below normal – 26 to 40 percent below normal. Some are zero – zero percent of normal.”
One of the frustrations he faces is convincing city, county and regional governments to admit there is a crisis.
“In 2007, San Angelo had only eight weeks of water left. Yet there is no evidence the city ever formulated a water plan. They never instituted water restrictions. Their water was going to run out in eight weeks, but you still could water your lawns.”
But it cost the city around $1.5 million a day to haul 100 trucks of bottled water during the shortage, and that was every day until it rained.
His office has yet to find any Texas municipality that has made any plans on what to do if it should run out of water.
The drought, he said, is forcing a paradigm shift. “It is challenging our water laws, which originated in Europe, where they don’t have droughts,” he says. “Eventually, some emergency manager is going to be faced with figuring out who gets the remaining water – a power plant or a hospital.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency,” Bewley says, “has no structure to understand water emergencies.”
The role of his own agency, he says, traditionally has been to react to an emergency, not to take any action until after an emergency has occurred. But the fear of communities running out of water because of the continuing drought has forced it to re-focus on prevention.
Helping to cut the red tape is an Emergency Drinking Water Task Force that meets weekly to monitor water supplies. Still, he says, the working criteria is 180 days – the time it takes the state bureaucracies to react.
Bewley’s concerns, mirrored by Nielsen-Gammon, is that there is little indication of excessive rainfall on the horizon.
“This drought easily could continue for another year,” Nielsen-Gammon says, “maybe more.”
Admitting his science might be flawed, Bewley says he is haunted by the similarity between the current drought and the 1950s.
“The 1950s sequence was La Niña, La Niña, a neutral year, another neutral year, followed by another La Niña. So, today, we’ve had a La Niña year followed by two neutral years and now we have another La Niña. It’s starting too look just like the drought of the 1950s.
“There is about only a year’s worth of water stored in the Rio Grande. Choke Canyon, Lake Corpus Christi all have low levels. I’m concerned.”
Adequate water supplies still exist, Bewley says, but utilizing it will require Texans to re-evaluate their attitude about water.
“The average American uses 200 gallons of water a day,” he says. “That figure is 130 gallons in El Paso, which has a vigorous conservation program. In Australia, it’s 80 gallons a day; for people in Seville, Spain, the average is 35 gallons.”
While applauding Bewley’s attempt to raise awareness and to formulate comprehensive water plans, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi say Bewley’s science is off the mark.
Still, Nielsen-Gammon had said earlier, while some trends indicate South Texas is experiencing a climate change, the wise approach is to remember “the weather has a mind of its own.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.