Peruse the comments on a few internet news articles, and I guarantee that you will see strangers arguing with each other about anything and everything. Frequently the debate migrates to one of the hot topics of our time, such as climate change.
All political debates aside, our work at the Panola County Groundwater Conservation District has built some local context on how the weather has affected the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer over the last 10 years. Additionally, scientists around the world are constantly studying climate trends, trying to better predict what’s going to happen in our lifetime and beyond. So, what is in store for East Texas? More droughts? Floods? Everything in between? Each year, the scientific community is getting better and better at understanding how Earth’s systems work and predicting what’s next.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently completed a study on how the water cycle has changed in the last 70 years, specifically looking at how weather patterns over land have shifted. In the study, the USGS compared the periods of 1945-1974 and 1985-2014, and the comparison indicated that for much of the continental U.S., the water cycle is becoming more intense. That includes most of Texas, which means that our region will likely be seeing more rainfall, more floods and potentially some short-lived severe droughts in the coming decades.
Here in Panola County, the groundwater district has been tracking precipitation, drought and trends in the aquifer since 2011. While the drought in 2010-2013 was an all-timer, it did show that the people and environment here are hardy enough to survive. In terms of precipitation, the county did not return to average conditions until 2015, which was the first wet year in the previous six years. Following 2015, 2016 was a wet year but ended with an average cumulative total; 2017 was below average for precipitation; and 2018 was an above-average year thanks to a very wet fall season. So far in 2019, the rainy trend is continuing, but it’s important to remember that it only takes a few weeks of hot, dry weather to kick-start a drought, which is exactly what occurred in 2015. Panola County spent the first seven months of that year drought-free but then spent three consecutive months in a severe drought, finally ending in November 2015.
The district’s monitor well network showed a similar post-drought response, as water levels fluctuated up and down a few feet each year from 2012-2014, but there was a significant shift upward starting in 2015 as precipitation increased and groundwater production decreased. The aquifer found a new high in the post-drought era, with average water levels staying about 3.5 feet higher than in 2012-2014. Groundwater levels have also fluctuated with less magnitude annually, becoming more stable from 2016 to now.
This year, average water levels are higher than at any point in the previous eight years in Panola County, but does that mean we’re in the clear? 2019 looks like it will be smooth sailing from a drought perspective, but the economy is picking up and so is production in the oil and gas sector. If a drought were to develop while groundwater production rates continue to rise, the aquifer could return to its 2011 form. In light of the recent findings on the water cycle, you better hedge your bets toward more frequent swings of the pendulum. Looks like the old adage of “If you don’t like the weather around here, just wait a few minutes” will continue to apply.
Even if society gets better at predicting Earth’s climate changes (and arguing about it), we’ll never be in control of the weather. What we can control, however, is how we prepare and how we respond when another round of extreme conditions is inevitably upon us. The Panola County Groundwater Conservation District will continue to diligently monitor the aquifer and the factors that influence it, but we will always need the public’s cooperation in conserving water and keeping our groundwater resources sustainable for whatever the future holds.