Shock Doctrine and Water Shortages in Texas

Back in 2007, Naomi Klein wrote The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  In her book – some odd reading, since the writing style for the latter half of the book seemed quite different from the first half – Klein argued that "the free market policies of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman have risen to prominence in some countries because of a deliberate strategy of certain leaders to exploit crises by pushing through controversial, exploitative policies while citizens were too busy emotionally and physically reeling from disasters or upheavals to create an effective resistance."

While I disagree with Klein's politics, a broader interpretation of the shock doctrine thesis is correct; this is a salesmanship technique undoubtedly as old as civilization itself.  There are many people all across the political spectrum who follow the shock doctrine manual: create (or exploit) a crisis and profit by the solution to the problem you created (or exploited).  Want to see shock doctrine in action?  Follow the climate activists.

Every disaster – big or small – is supposedly due to, or exacerbated by, or somehow representative of, or a possible indication of the future impacts of the great evil threatening us all...anthropogenic climate change.  And, of course, the activists often offer the solutions: renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, geo-engineering strategies, etc.  In a number of cases, those helping fuel the hysteria are the same ones who have private companies that would financially benefit from the solutions they are calling for.

Down in Texas, there has been a drought in recent years.  Some climate scientists have blamed the drought on anthropogenic climate change, but the historical data in the region suggests quite the contrary.  Some of the journalists reporting on the issue apparently have some problems with basic statistics.

There are water shortages in Texas, but I would argue that the state needs to be careful not to overreact to them and frame bad policy.  The George W. Bush Institute in Dallas has come out with some policy recommendations – interestingly, in the Huffington Post, of all outlets – about how Texas can deal with its water woes.

The article – William McKenzie, the editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute – offers some potentially useful paths forward, and it wisely stays away from any climate change discussions.  Some climate context needs to be added, however, in order to help Texas make a responsible water policy framework.

McKenzie begins his article with the following:

Wichita Falls, Texas, is about to run out of drinking water.

You read that right: out of drinking water.

The north Texas town may not be a metropolis, but it is a community of about 105,000 people, right along the Red River on the Oklahoma border. For the last three-and-a-half years, the city has been living with its driest conditions since 1897.

Water is tight in Wichita Falls, no doubt about that, but this doesn't appear to be true: "For the last three-and-a-half years, the city has been living with its driest conditions since 1897."

Since records began in 1898, there is no significant trend in annual precipitation at Wichita Falls.  Indeed, there is weak statistical evidence of a modest increase over this timeframe.  At the height of the recent drought (2011), it wasn't even close to the driest year on record.  In 1909, 1910, 1920, and 1923, the city received far less precipitation (only 2.6 inches in all of 1920) than in 2011 (13.0 inches), and 2012 and 2013 were only the 15th and 25th driest years on record.

The current 36-month (three-year) running total precipitation for Wichita Falls is only the 9th driest on record, not the lowest.  And rather than getting drier on a three-year basis, the town is getting much wetter.  The 36-month running total precipitation is increasing with high statistical confidence at a rate of over 13 inches per century.  Same with the 48-month (four-year) running total precipitation.  The current four-year period is only the 10th driest on record, and the trend is increasing (again, with high statistical confidence) at about 20 inches per century.

What has changed the most in Wichita Falls over the past 120 years?  Not the climate.  It is the population, which has grown from just under 2,000 people in 1890 to about 105,000 today.  Do the mass balance on the water supply, and you find that per-capita availability of fresh water is declining even though precipitation is increasing.

Granted, the area around Wichita Falls is very dry.  As a whole, this low rolling plains district of northern Texas has seen the lowest and 4th lowest precipitation totals since records began for the prior 36-month and 48-month periods, respectively.  But the overall precipitation trend in this area since the late 1800s is not one of decline, and is instead probably even a modest increase.  Just to the east of Wichita Falls in the north-central climate division, the precipitation trend is increasing rapidly over time.  To the west in the northernmost section of the state, the trend is decreasing.  Heterogeneity abounds, which is something state policymakers need to keep in mind.

Drought indices tell a similar story.  The area around Wichita Falls is in a severe drought, but whether or not it is the worst on record depends on the timeframe you look at.  The current 12-month drought index is the 9th lowest since records began, and has eased substantially since the 2011 low point.  On a calendar year basis, 2013 was only the 8th worst drought, and while 2011 was the worst on record, it was only slightly worse than 1956.

Shift it out to a two-year basis, and the 2011-2013 period in the low rolling plains climate division that Wichita Falls sits in was the worst drought on record.  Over three years, it's also the worst.  But then move to the four- and five-year running drought indices, and the periods from 2009/2010-2014 are much less severe than the drought this portion of Texas experienced during the 1950s, as the graph below shows (negative values [yellow] indicate increasingly severe droughts, whereas positive values [green] show increasingly wet/non-drought years).  The statewide values are also shown, and they illustrate that the five-year drought conditions in Texas during the 1950s were far worse than anything seen during the past few years.

The point of all this data is that we need to be cautious with precipitation and drought statistics in Texas.  Anecdotal writing is more popular in the media today than ever.  Sometimes this writing style can be useful, but very often it distorts reality by over-generalizing from an isolated case, in shock doctrine style.

Wichita Falls is simply not representative of all of Texas.  If you take a tour around the state and look at three-year running precipitation totals within a historical perspective, you find that Abilene saw much worse conditions in the 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, and 2000s; Amarillo and Lubbock are at their lowest points since records began in the 1950s; Austin isn't currently much below the historical average; Brownsville is at its historical average after well above average levels of precipitation for a number of years and a record-high for the 2008-2011 period; Corpus Christi and Dallas are only modestly below average and nowhere near record lows; Del Rio is below average but not remotely close to the record dryness during the 1960s; El Paso is near record lows but still ranks only 5th worst since 1895; Houston is dry but not near record lows; Midland is near record lows; and yet San Antonio is actually above average and has been that way for several years.  Once again, heterogeneity abounds.

Statewide, 2013 was an average year for precipitation, yielding 26 inches compared to the 1895-2013 average of 27 inches.  Since 1895, there has been no significant trend in Texas's annual precipitation.  The correlation is positive but not statistically significant.

The worst drought conditions in the state from a couple years ago are easing.  Although east Texas is almost out of drought, everywhere else is still in a significant drought – but if trends continue, the pressure may lift over the next couple years.  Now simply isn't the time to create comprehensive and far-reaching water policy in shock doctrine style.  Following the advice of Rahm Emanuel to "never let a good crisis go to waste" will not lead Texas in the direction it needs to go, particularly when I see statements by the George W. Bush Institute such as "the trick is finding the right balance between planning and property rights."

Discussions over property rights are never best conducted when a crisis is at hand.  Wait until the drought crisis settles down – which it undoubtedly will – and then begin examining proposals over this very contentious topic (especially in Texas, where property rights issues are taken more seriously than almost anywhere else).

Texas does have some tough questions ahead on water policy.  Climate change isn't the real issue; population growth is.  Between 2002 and 2012, Texas's population grew by over 20 percent, only slightly less than the 22-percent rate during the prior decade.  In the half-century from 1913 to 1963, Texas added just under six million residents.  During the 50 years since, the population has grown by 16 million.  Great for the economy, but it is simple math to determine that the amount of water available per person is on the way down, and fast.  Throw in new uses of water, such as fracking (which, as the Bush Institute notes, does compete with domestic and agricultural uses for water access), and the stresses are magnified more than just the population increases would suggest.

This leads us back to the title of McKenzie's article: "America 2025: How to Start Securing Enough Water."  Wouldn't it be great to know how much water Texas would need in more than a decade?  Of course, but this requires us to predict population growth, the water intensity of emerging technologies (nobody was seriously predicting the fracking revolution 11 years ago), and all those "unknown unknowns" Donald Rumsfeld would be warning us about.  Knowing how much water you need to secure also requires knowing how much precipitation you will have over this timeframe.  Good luck with that prediction.

Apparently "Texas' planning process is now under fire from some who think it undermines private property rights."  As it should be.  Some of these water planning processes reek of central planning escapades at the state and local levels, and are attractive for wannabe-authoritarian-type bureaucrats.  Just look what happened to the EPA and many other government agencies – they started out with reasonably good intentions and have ended up caring more about accruing power and tax revenues than their formal mandates should require.

I watched these types of "water planning" processes and organizations sprout up in southern British Columbia during the mid- to late 1990s through the mid-2000s.  What a disaster.  The best people weren't brought into the fold, appointments were primarily political rather than merit-based, wild spending was advocated (such as spending upwards of almost $400 million in up-front capital costs alone for water treatment plants in a city of only 100,000), and environmental science was distorted and exaggerated in an attempt to promote entrenched bureaucratic and political interests.

Using less water per capita in some areas of Texas is a laudable goal.  In other areas, the concerns may be trivial and can be ignored.  But the planning processes should not be crafted during times of crisis, nor should a Frankensteinian water bureaucracy be constructed.  As the graph below shows, by 2013, the precipitation in Texas was already effectively back up to the 20th-century average after reaching the second-lowest point in the database during 2011.  The same decline-and-rapid-increase pattern is clear repeatedly throughout the historical record.

The lessons of history for water in Texas are straightforward.  Don't panic and make rash decisions, and heed Reagan's wise counsel that also applies to water policy efforts: "A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."  There is often a lag time between when precipitation begins to rebound back up to historical norms and the refill rates of various reservoirs that were drawn down during the worst of the drought.  Take the time to wait for this process, which is undeniably underway, before acting.  Making water policy during a drought is equivalent to building public infrastructure during an overheated economy, when construction costs are maximized – common sense is absent, and good value for money is not obtained.

Patience needed in the Lone Star State on water policy.  Avoid the shock doctrine.