The combination of extreme drought conditions and the hottest July ever recorded in Texas could lead the Tarrant Regional Water District to initiate the first stage of its drought contingency plan as soon as late September. 

Water storage levels in the seven reservoirs that serve Tarrant County residents have fallen by 10% between June and August, according to data provided by Rachel Ickert, TRWD’s chief water resources officer. 

Stages of drought contingency plan

Stage 1, Water Watch: Raw water supply falls beneath 75% full. Goal is to reduce total water use by 5%. Cities would limit outdoor watering to twice per week and prohibit watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Stage 2, Water Warning: Raw water supply falls beneath 60% full. Goal is to reduce total water use by 10%. Cities would prohibit outdoor watering more than once per week and ask residents to postpone new landscaping. Agencies would send more public messaging to conserve. 

Stage 3, Water Emergency: Raw water supply falls beneath 45% full. Goal is to reduce total water use by 20%. Cities would prohibit all outdoor watering with hose-end sprinklers and automatic irrigation systems, including at parks, golf courses, and sports fields. Businesses and residents would be banned from washing paved areas or buildings without permission.

Reservoirs were about 80.5% full as of Aug. 14, Ickert told water district board members during their Aug. 16 meeting. Lake Benbrook in Tarrant County is the lowest lake as of mid-August, sitting at 65.1% of capacity, while the Richland-Chambers reservoir in Navarro County has the highest water levels at 83.5% of capacity. 

“From a water supply standpoint, we’re OK, and we’re not really close to anybody being in danger of losing their water supply at our reservoirs,” Ickert said. 

If total combined water supply falls beneath 75% full, the water district will instruct its customers – including Fort Worth, Arlington, Mansfield and several other large customers across 11 counties – to enter Stage 1, or the Water Watch stage, of its drought plan. 

Under Stage 1, cities must reduce total water use by 5% through enforcing requirements to water lawns no more than twice per week and prohibiting outdoor watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. The twice-per-week requirement is already implemented year-round in Fort Worth, but Arlington and Mansfield do not currently have the rule in place, Ickert said. 

If dry conditions continue through the next month, Ickert’s projections show the region could enter Stage 1 by late September or early October. That date could change depending on how much rainfall North Texas receives in the next few weeks, but Ickert said the need to implement the drought contingency plan is becoming more imminent. 

“As lake levels continue to decline, we’re still, really, in pretty good shape from the water supply standpoint,” Ickert said. “We do understand that you start to get some pain points from businesses on the lakes or people that live there, recreation impacts. At our reservoirs, we’re starting to see some of those impacts. It’s not extreme at this point in most situations.” 

Under Stage 1, the water district will also instruct government agencies to increase enforcement of watering violations, such as Fort Worth’s new initiative to notify customers of water use outside of permitted times. 

The drought plan would also encourage cities to communicate more with residents about the best methods to conserve water. Conservation efforts saved 21 billion gallons of water in the region last year, according to a water district estimate. 

The most recent drought map, produced by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

North Texas is not alone in facing nearly unprecedented drought conditions this summer, which came after a historic lack of rainfall in the fall of 2021 and the spring of 2022.

Nearly all of the state is experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions, and just over 29% of Texas is in “exceptional” drought, or the most extreme conditions measured by the National Integrated Drought Information System. Exceptional drought conditions include widespread crop loss, negative impacts to forestry and tourism industries and extreme sensitivity to fire danger.

The most acute impact has been in south Texas, where 3 million people living on both sides of the Rio Grande River are in danger of running out of water by March 2023 without massive rainfalls, according to Inside Climate News

Track the Texas drought

Check the U.S. Drought Monitor map for Texas, which is updated each Thursday with the most recent rainfall and soil data. You can select different counties, including Tarrant, for more detailed information.

Tarrant Regional Water District releases daily reports on the status of its water supplies, including reservoirs and lakes. 

The Texas Water Development Board releases a weekly report on the state’s water outlook. 

This year’s extreme heat and lack of rain are testing the limits of the water district’s models for providing water to a population that has exploded since Texas suffered its driest year ever in 2011. One hundred percent of Tarrant County residents are currently experiencing “extreme” drought conditions, while just under 92% of the county is witnessing “exceptional” drought, according to the most recent federal data.

“This will be a calibration year,” Ickert said. “When we are modeling going into the future, we’ll be looking back at the data from this year, just like we look back at 2011 and look back at 2006. From a planner’s standpoint, it’s nice to have the information, to know how much water is going to be used in these kinds of conditions.” 

The water district can’t predict how long this drought will last or how much it will affect reservoirs, but the agency is preparing for every scenario, said Dan Buhman, the water district’s general manager. 

“That is the core of who we are,” Buhman said. “We’re always preparing for the next drought. We’re always preparing for the next flood.”

In other water district news: 

  • Board members approved a plan to extend the operations of the tax increment financing district that provides funding for Panther Island for an additional 10 years. If the move is approved by all interested parties – the city of Fort Worth,Tarrant County, the hospital district, the Tarrant County College district and the water district – the Panther Island TIF will continue operating at least through 2054. Fort Worth City Council members are expected to discuss the proposal Aug. 23. 
  • Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius and Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke were appointed to another four-year term on the Trinity River Vision Authority board, which oversees the Panther Island / Central City flood control project. Dan Buhman, the water district’s general manager, said their continued service with the TRVA follows the tradition of including two city representatives, two water district leaders, two county representatives and a representative from the Trinity River-focused nonprofit Streams and Valleys on the board. 
  • The board will hold a special hearing about the water district’s 2022 tax rate at 2 p.m. Sept. 19. Board members will have their next regular meeting at 9 a.m. Sept. 20.

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...