Wildfires, drought will plague Texas economy

Wildfires, drought will plague Texas economy   

01 November 2011

published by www.amarillo.com  

USA — AUSTIN – Two Texas Senate committees on Tuesday got a sobering reminder about the devastating impact the ongoing drought and this year’s wildfires have had on the entire state.

More than 27,000 fires have destroyed 2,800 homes and most of those blazes — 81 percent — occurred within two miles of a community, which means that in nine out of 10 cases, someone started the blazes, the members of the Senate Agriculture & Rural Affairs and Natural Resources Committees were told during a six-hour hearing.

To make things worse, the current drought is one of the worst in Texas history and the cost for the state to meet its current and future water needs has increased from $31 billion in 2007 to $53 billion.

The huge increase is because the state’s infrastructure is aging, said Carol Brittin of the Texas Water Development Board, one of more than 20 witnesses testifying before the panel.

Moreover, the drought that began in October last year should last at least another year, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon told the lawmakers.

In all, the economic losses caused by the wildfires and the drought run in the billions of dollars, some witnesses told the senators or in written testimony.

“The loss of $5 billion to $6 billion in agricultural production will ripple through the state’s economy,” David Gibson, executive vice president of the Corn Producers Association of Texas, said in his written testimony.

“In the Amarillo and Lubbock regions where agriculture accounts for about 40 percent of economic activity, there will be job losses in businesses and industries unrelated to agriculture because of the overall decline in economic activity,” Gibson said.

However, there are ways to help the state weather the severe drought without spending huge amounts of money and one is water conservation, some witnesses said.

In San Antonio, for example, thanks to the city’s strict conservation program, which has been in place for 15 years, the drought did not impact the city as much as it did other communities in the state, said Karen Guz, conservation director at the San Antonio Water System.

“We’re very aware that what we experienced were inconveniences but not crises other communities were facing,” Guz said. Consequently, “we will finish with a surplus.”

Sen. Kel Seliger, a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee complimented Guz for her city’s conservation plan.

“My impression is that you are a model for conservation,” Seliger, R-Amarillo, told her.

Seliger said after the hearing that although the situation is dire for the entire state, he is encouraged that all the witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing are on the same page.

“Conservation is the key,” he said. “It’s probably the most important step we can start taking.”

Desalination and water recycling are also issues the state would focus on, Seliger said.

Tuesday’s hearing is the first in a series of public hearings on the drought and the wildfires that the Legislature is expected to hold before the lawmakers are back in session on Jan, 8, 2013. House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presiding officer of the Senate, have made the drought and the wildfires a legislative priority.

The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the impact the drought has had on the state water plan and how local communities, as well as the state, have dealt with it.

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