A Texas Water Symposium titled “Climate and Water in Central Texas: Planning for a Changing Resource,” was held earlier in November at Schreiner University and recorded for broadcasting on Texas Public Radio.
The public was invited to the free symposium to hear moderator Weir Labatt and a panel of four experts discuss water conservation and climate change; and could ask questions after their presentations.
The panelists were:
• Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist, and Regents Professor, Texas A&M University;
• Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority;
• John Zeitler, science and operations officer for NOAA/National Weather Service, Austin-San Antonio Forecast Office;
• Bill Neiman, founder of Native American Seed Farm, Junction.
Labatt has been involved in the public debate on water policy for the past 30 years; and also is chairman of the SU Board of Trustees. He and the symposium in general were welcomed to the campus by SU President Dr. Charlie McCormick.
Labatt began by quoting an article predicting and certifying climate change and temperature records. He asked for a show of hands from the audience, asking how many people there believe in climate change as a reality. Most of those attending raised their hands.
He said he hoped for a scientific and factual conversation, but realized this debate is warped by people’s sound bytes and much content is not factual.
Gammon said he learned about climate change before it was a thing; and so far he’s been focusing on the drought aspect.
“There are three main ways to know – records and fossils, computer research, and the physics of climate,” he said.
Zeitler said his work is directed from a federal agency through the Department of Commerce, with NOAA as the parent organization. There are some national centers including one for climate change studies in Washington. D.C.
“Protecting lives and property is our mission; and the latest work has been done in Texas on the 2015 drought and 2017 floods. We mostly deal with short-term issues,” he said. “We understand there are variables but we have to study changes.”
Scott talked about the Region L planning group and said their territory covers Uvalde to San Antonio to the Brazos, Nueces, San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers.
“The state requires each region to have a water plan. We have to find the resources to meet the needs. Projects have included aquifer storage wells,” she said. “The plans have five-year cycles, and we’re now studying out to 2020-2050.”
She said she was told Region L hadn’t studied climate change so much, and wondered why. Based on the “drought of record,” future droughts will be more severe and last longer; and floods will have more severe consequences, she said.
“Because this is a state-mandated process, we need the state’s direction from the State Water Board,” Scott said.
Gammon responded that they asked the state and they said this was a regional plan area and we should go ahead.
Neiman said he used to believe in the word of government agencies.
“Now I’m doing it myself. And I’m also a pilot and weather is critical to my flights,” he said. “The overriding theme is water, and 70 percent in cityscapes goes to landscaping.”
He gave the example of using St. Augustine grass and its unsuitability here, compared to its climate of origin. He recommends buffalo grass for Hill Country use, which can withstand temperatures from minus-40 to 115 degrees with no problem.
“Wind energy is the key to electricity; and the original wind power is in your clothesline,” Neiman said.
Labatt said when they are talking about sustaining life on this planet, one of the factors they hadn’t talked about was population. He said officials are predicting one million more people in San Antonio. “This is going to hit our children and grandchildren in the face if we don’t do something soon.”
Gammon talked about “modeling” to show climate change and said science can make such models but they should be treated as “ballpark estimates,” but not deny or accept it without questions.
Zeitler said all who have experience with this problem must keep using the same high school science reactions and computer forecasts; then rely on what’s plausible. Temperature and winds are fairly constant, he said, and the variable is rainfall which can have disastrous changes.
“We have made tremendous improvements in forecasting in the lifetimes of the people in this room,” he said.
Scott discussed the use of native vegetation in replanting parts of the San Antonio River channel; and said they have more bird species returning now. “Restoring nature has been extremely effective. But it takes re-education with people to use more natural systems.”
She said flash floods are more dangerous now in San Antonio when they start in the Hill Country. “We modeled what a Hurricane Harvey would have done in San Antonio; and Hwy. 281 would have been covered with water for 12 days.”
In San Antonio it would come up quickly with more velocity, then recede. But if they have more intense frequent storms, can they build themselves out of it? No, she said; there are difficult policy issues included in development and hard decisions that will affect people’s lives.
Neiman said restoring natural landscape requires some intentional neglect. Tall native grasses have deep roots and tall heads that lay down in floods and provide cleansing in the water.
Labatt brought up the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and a tree-ring study that found the oldest tree core samples in that area. Some were 800 years old but they averaged 450 years old. And the study found there have been 31 other droughts that were worse than the 1950s on which current water planning is based.
He asked if the panel thinks climate change is human-induced.
Gammon cited water, carbon dioxide, methane and others; and said most increases in the atmosphere are because of man’s activities. Some heat up the atmosphere and some cool it down.
“Most ‘solid’ evidence is in the oceans. Surface warming and sensors say the temperature is rising all the way down into the ocean,” Gammon said.
Zeitler said what’s really warming the world is volcanos and solar cycles; and changes in CO2 are the best evidence. “If citizens don’t believe the climate is changing, they should study temperatures, humidity, gardening seasons’ length and real winters here. “Do we still have real winters? I have seen records now of only half of the number in my lifetime. Everywhere on Earth, except maybe in Antarctica, there is evidence the climate is changing.”
He said humans on Earth have let it happen to ourselves especially the last 50 years; and we’ve lost civility, civics and community pride trying to deal with it.
“The federal government is not moving forward on this; and states move faster sometimes. It’s disrespectful of us to not honor our ancestors who took such chances to live here,” he said.
Neiman said each person should do something in their own spots and the pieces will become cumulative. He said it’s not rocket science to make personal positive changes, such as hanging clothes outside to dry.
He said the San Antonio River Authority got the Nobel Peace Prize of river awards for their restoration project; and got the economic benefits.
Labatt said people have been in public debates on this for 30 years and he hopes everyone can get to discuss different issues on a respectful basis. On a more personal note, he said his personal views on climate change used to make him intensely dislike the Sierra Club and their views. But he has come to believe they were and are completely right.
Audience questions were related to the necessity of rainwater collection; whether modern agriculture practices are to blame; Nieman’s Prairie at his business site that functions as a rainforest to be the “lungs of the earth;” what models have been done on the “carrying capacity” of major water sources in this region; the difference between a climate scientist and meteorologist; and putting the brakes on human activities.
Labatt said, in closing, that individual personal rights versus the common good usually comes out in the middle.