Industrial Evolution

Farmers and ranchers are the most visible victims of drought. But if our incredibly thirsty power plants, factories, and municipalities don’t figure out how to cope with a hotter, drier climate, the Texas Miracle might disappear in a cloud of dust.
Photograph by Casey Dunn

Last 
November, John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist of Texas, traveled to Amarillo to talk to a gathering of farmers and ranchers. The day was unseasonably warm, with temperatures reaching into the mid-sixties, and typically dry. Amarillo had, at the time, received barely a quarter of its normal annual precipitation. Speaking from a raised stage in the Grand Plaza Room of Amarillo’s civic center, Nielsen-Gammon wrapped up his presentation, as he usually did, by telling the one hundred or so people in the audience that while predicting future precipitation was hard, he had little doubt that temperatures in the state were slowly rising over the long term. After he finished, a listener raised his hand.

“You don’t believe in all that Al Gore global warming nonsense, do you?” asked the man, who looked to be in his fifties.

Nielsen-Gammon, a native Californian with three degrees from MIT and a ready laugh, smiled at the question and fielded it easily. He acknowledged that parts of Al Gore’s Academy Award–winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth were exaggerated or oversimplified. That was probably the answer the man was looking for. But Nielsen-Gammon wasn’t done. He added a version of his standard line: “The earth is getting warmer, mankind has a lot to do with it, and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.”

Delivering hard truths to Texans is one role of the state climatologist, a scantly funded and, until recently, little-noticed position that was created in 1973 after the federal government disbanded its national climatology program. One recent April afternoon, as Nielsen-Gammon sat in his fourteenth-floor corner office at Texas A&M—where he doubles as an atmospheric sciences professor—his windows offered a view of dead, drought-stricken trees against a landscape that, thanks to the spring rains, was green and flourishing. Inside, with a few clicks of a mouse, he summoned colorful squiggles and lines to illustrate everything from forecasts of next week’s weather to global wind patterns.

What the data show is worrying. The unbearable temperatures Texas suffered through last summer could become the norm. Nielsen-Gammon believes that greenhouse gas emissions will cause temperatures in the state to rise an “annoyingly large” amount—somewhere in the neighborhood of three degrees by mid-century. (Adding in hard-to-predict events like volcanic eruptions, changes in solar activity, and El Niño or La Niña could push the mercury up or down a couple of degrees.) “You probably wouldn’t care much about a degree,” Nielsen-Gammon said. But “last summer, for example, was 5.2 degrees above normal, and people seemed to notice 5 degrees.”

The earth seemed to notice too. Rainfall, notwithstanding the ongoing drought, has been increasing in Texas in recent decades, owing to such likely factors as ocean temperature patterns, air pollution, and even global warming itself. But hotter weather means more evaporation. The lakes serving the parched Permian Basin already lose more water to evaporation than to the local population’s usage—and Odessa, Big Spring, and other nearby towns that draw on those reservoirs could hypothetically run out of water, despite the wet spring. The crazier the temperatures, the drier Texas becomes.

Much of the time, Nielsen-Gammon delivers these bleak forecasts to the sort of people who filled up that auditorium in Amarillo: men and women who work the land and have borne the brunt of the drought. But if the drought continues, and if climate change continues to make Texas hotter, he will find himself speaking more often to another sort of audience: titans of industry.

Texas has long been a land of booms and busts, and another industrial boom—probably the biggest since the early eighties—is under way, spurred on by low prices for natural gas. To an unappreciated degree, water is essential to this growth. Power plants require an enormous amount of water for cooling and condensing steam before returning water to the rivers. So do plastics manufacturers and oil refineries. And the people who move to Texas to work at these plants need water too, for showering and washing clothes and—though this is a want, not a need—for keeping their lawns green. Given that the state’s growth-oriented economy is expected to drive and support a near doubling of the population by 2060, that’s a tremendous amount of water running through homes and power plants and factories. (Agricultural water use, by contrast, is currently on the decline.)

If this century is hotter—and therefore drier—than the last one, when Texas built itself into a job-creating powerhouse, the economy could theoretically grind to a halt. The horrors of running out of water, as happened to the Central Texas hamlet of Spicewood Beach this year, could spread to larger cities and even big industrial plants. Water is the Achilles’ heel of the Texas economy, the one thing that can slice through our boundless confidence that we can do everything faster, better, and bigger than anywhere else. State senator Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio recently recounted to a Senate committee an awkward conversation she had with a Michigan lawmaker last year over lunch: “The nice legislator from Michigan said, ‘Well, I just want you to know that in ten to fifteen years, when you Texans are suckin’ dirt because you don’t have any water, the jobs are gonna come back to Michigan.’ ”

The Michigan lawmaker thought he was being funny, but Van de Putte didn’t laugh, because she knew his joke contained a grain of truth. To be sure, even in the unlikely event that manufacturers were to leave Texas, or simply not move here in the first place, they’d probably find more attractive places to go than Detroit and Flint—the Southeast, for example, where climate projections call for increased rainfall. Still, the mere thought of severe water shortages has rattled everyone from lawmakers to the head of the Texas electric grid, who has put water near the top of his list of things to worry about. No one wants to see Texas become another Rust Belt, a landscape of abandoned factories and unemployed workers. With careful planning, especially by fast-growing municipalities and private industry, Texas should

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