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Nine Cities Running Out of Water

Michael B. Sauter, Alexander E.M. Hess

Severe drought continues to threaten the water supply of large parts of the Western U.S. According to a group that monitors drought conditions, Lubbock, Texas has averaged the worst level of drought since the beginning of 2011.

Based on data provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a joint program produced by academic and government organizations, 24/7 Wall St. identified large U.S. urban areas that have been under persistent, serious drought for months.

Click here to see the nine cities

Most of these urban areas have experienced prolonged periods of “extreme drought,” characterized by the Drought Monitor as likely to involve crop or pasture loss, water shortage, and some water restrictions. Most have even had prolonged periods of “exceptional drought,” which involves widespread crop losses, low reservoir levels, and water shortage emergencies. Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, has been in a state of exceptional drought since April, 2013. Exceptional drought persisted in at least three quarters of Pueblo, Colorado, since February.

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The cause of the drought in these areas is historically low rainfall. In Pueblo, Colorado, which is part of the southeastern region of Colorado that has been especially hard-hit, just 3.77 inches of rain were reported through late July, compared to the more than 7 inches it normally gets by this time.

Conditions have been bad in some of these areas for so long that some rain may not be enough to fix the problem after such a prolonged and persistent drought. Last week, severe thunderstorms in some of the drought-affected parts of Colorado produced some temporary relief for residents. However, as assistant climatologist/geologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center Brian Fuchs explained to 24/7 Wall St., it is unlikely that the rainfall will fix the region’s long-term problems.

Fuchs noted that these rains will possibly provide only short-term relief for agriculture and will add some moisture to the soil. But, he added “unless you have several rain events to percolate into any kind of ground water, one significant rain event ... won’t even touch the water table."

This threat to regional water tables and reservoirs, which are in many cases at historical lows, are what city planners are now dealing with. “We do see municipal water restrictions that typically go through several stages, from voluntary to mandatory, to even more stringent mandatory restrictions, depending on the circumstances,” Fuchs said.

Most of these cities with high drought levels have at least voluntary restrictions, while some, like McAllen and Corpus Christi, Texas, have implemented mandatory restrictions. The current plan in McAllen, which is being employed for the first time in the city’s history, prohibits a variety of water use activities during the day, including watering lawns and cars, as well as filling swimming pools.

How much of a crisis these areas are in depends on their source of water, Fuchs explained. Some of these places only have one municipal water source. “A lot of these places in the Western U.S. get their water from large reservoirs. In drought years, you’ll see those reservoirs go down, and they have to spend money to move their intake pipes further into those reservoirs so they can actually get the water out of it.” Many of the cities on our list are large enough that they have multiple sources of water. But for smaller cities, noted Fuchs, “If that lake or reservoir goes dry, that’s all they have.”

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That being said, there were cases of larger urban areas undergoing a serious water crisis. Atlanta’s crisis in 2007 was one example Fuchs mentioned. “We had instances five or six years ago where they were using fire trucks to bring water to these communities because they had a single source that had dried up, and there was hundreds of people without any fresh water," Fuchs said. "Typically, we don’t see these [situations] in larger communities, but to say it’s not possible would be foolish.”

If the drought persists in some of these communities, severe water shortages may be a real possibility. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association estimates that while drought conditions in New Mexico may recover somewhat, drought conditions in the cities in southeastern Colorado and southern Texas will persist or even get worse through at least the fall.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 24/7 Wall St. identified the nine urban areas with populations of 75,000 or more where on average at least 75% of the area was affected by “extreme drought” for the first seven months of 2013. To be considered, these areas also had to be at least partially affected by “exceptional drought,” the worst possible level. All data is as of the week ending July 23rd.

These are the nine cities running out of water.

9. Santa Fe, N.M.
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 76.7%
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 16.7%
> Population: 89,284

The entirety of the Santa Fe area has been in a state of exceptional drought -- the worst possible type -- for the past five weeks. Already, the area has been consistently under extreme drought -- the second-worst level -- since mid-February. The drought in much of the state contributed to the rapid spreading of the Tres Lagunas fire which burned 16 square miles of land -- the equivalent of close to a third of the size of the Santa Fe urban area -- near the city earlier this summer. However, according to the NOAA, drought conditions in much of the state are expected to improve through the end of the summer and into the fall.

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8. Albuquerque, N.M.
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 76.7%
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 43.3%
> Population: 741,318

The majority of the state of New Mexico is in a state of extreme drought. The state’s largest city, Albuquerque, has been completely under the worst possible level of drought since the end of April. This is the city's second major drought in the last three years -- it was under extreme drought for most of 2011. Much-needed heavy storms hit the area last week, but experts caution this is likely not enough to help the parched land fully recover. National Weather Service meteorologist Chuck Jones told the Associated Press, “It’s making a little dent in places ... but [the drought] is something that developed over several years … and it will take several years for the state to recover, assuming we get normal or above normal monsoons.”Jones also noted that Albuquerque was roughly a year behind its average three-year rainfall.

7. Corpus Christi, Texas 
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 79.1%
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 14.1%
> Population: 320,069

Nearly all of Corpus Christi has been in a state of extreme drought since early March. As a result, the city enacted restrictions on the use of water in late June. Among the mandatory restrictions are a ban on the residential use of sprinklers and car washing more than once a week, as well as the restriction of washing sidewalks and homes, unless expressly done for business or public-health purposes. In the city of Kenedy, about halfway between Corpus Christi and San Antonio, water shortage and well failures led to the city diverting water from the local prison. This left inmates unable to shower for a week.

6. Brownsville, Texas
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 81.1%
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 10.1%
> Population: 217,585

Since 2011, there has been a total of two weeks in which Brownsville, Texas, was not in at least a state of low-level drought. There have been extreme drought conditions for past the 23 straight weeks. According to The Brownsville Herald, as of early July, the last substantial rain in the area was April 28. The city announced a voluntary water restriction in April, asking residents to avoid non-essential use, particularly for lawn irrigation. Brownsville is the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas, which has had an ongoing dispute with Mexico for the country’s failure to deliver water to the valley as agreed in a 1944 treaty.

5. Harlingen, Texas
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 83.6%
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 11.5%
> Population: 135,663

The entirety of the Harlingen urban area has been in a state extreme drought since early March. In fact, more than 56% of the area on average has been under extreme drought since the start of 2011. Many farmers have found that they are unable to grow cotton and corn due to the drought, or raise livestock because of the rising cost of animal feed. The area’s drought is expected to persist through the fall, according to the NOAA.

4. Colorado Springs, Colo.
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 89.2%
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 4.7%
> Population: 559,409

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For roughly a year straight, at least some part of the Colorado Springs urban area has been in a state of extreme drought. The city's water capacity was just 57% as of July 21, a time of year when it is normally nearly 85%. Colorado Springs Utilities spokesperson Patrice Lehermeier noted, "We don't want to say it's becoming the norm, but dry conditions in Colorado is something we're going to be facing, especially in Colorado Springs, for a long time," As a local news station quoted. The NOAA projects that most of Colorado, including the Colorado Springs area, will be in a state or continued or worsening drought at least through the fall. Heavy rains in southern Colorado last week have eased some of the residents’ worries, but officials have cautioned that the region is by no means out of the woods.

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3. McAllen, Texas
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 100%
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 56.5%
> Population: 728,825

Like much of the southern part of Texas bordering Mexico -- known as the Rio Grande Valley -- McAllen has been in a state of severe, prolonged water shortage. Excepting a four-week period in late May/early June, at least some part of the area has been in a state of severe drought for 127 straight weeks. Portions of the area have been affected by the worst possible level of drought since September, 2012. The NOAA projects that drought conditions in the area will persist or intensify at least through October. In April, the city implemented phase 2 of its drought contingency plan. The plan includes mandatory water conservation, which limits the washing of vehicles, irrigation of lawns, and the refilling of swimming pools.

2. Pueblo, Colo.
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 71.2%
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 100%
> Population: 136,550

Arguably, no large urban area has faced worse drought than Pueblo this year. The entire area has been in a state of at least the second-worst possible drought level from the start of the year through the third week of July. On average, more than 70% of the Pueblo was affected by exceptional drought, higher than any other area with a population of 75,000 or more. According to KOAA, Pueblo had received just 3.77 inches of rainfall through July 22, nearly half of the 7.15 inches on average it normally receives by that date. The NOAA expects drought to remain a problem in the Pueblo area through the fall.

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1. Lubbock, Texas
> Exceptional drought coverage (2013): 62.8%
> Extreme drought coverage (2013): 100%
> Population: 237,356

Nearly half of the Lubbock area on average has been in a state of exceptional drought since 2011, worse than anywhere else in the nation with a population of more than 75,000. During that time, more than three quarters of the area was under exceptional drought in an average week, also worse than anywhere else in the nation. In April, to encourage water conservation, the city of Lubbock changed its water rate structure to penalize heavier users. Nothing illustrates the area's water problems better than White River Lake, which is located 70 miles south of Lubbock. The lake may be just a few weeks away from being unable to deliver water to 10,000 residents, according to The Associated Press.

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