Summer drought costs Texas 5.6 million urban trees

A new report from the Texas Forest Service found that cities in the Lone Star State lost 5.6 million trees due to drought last year. The trees, comprising 10 percent of Texas’ urban forest, had become “too thirsty to live,” as the Austin American-Statesman put it.

The drought’s impact on trees has put Texas officials in a tough spot. The same report detailing the lost trees also pointed to $280 million in annual environmental and economic benefit from trees, and that’s in addition to the qualitative benefits. It’s hard to put a numeric value on the thousands of missing pine trees from Houston Memorial Park, for instance, but their loss is undoubtedly felt.

In urban areas especially, trees play a critical role in shading buildings and streets, reducing the risk of flooding and keeping pollution down.

Removing trees is expensive, though well worth the cost to avoid risking a fall on a car, a power line or a home. Getting rid of dead or dying trees will cost the state of Texas $560 million dollars, the report says.

Texas’ large metropolitan areas, such as Houston, Dallas and Austin (above), currently have a total of 60 million trees.

Last summer is on record as one of the longest and driest in Texas history, and the trend looks likely to continue. Broader changes in climate cannot be solved at the local level alone, but there is a lot that cities can do to mitigate the damage.

In Austin, for instance, the Texas live oak has been more drought-resistant because its natural reserves are a good fit for the area. City Arborist Michael Embesi told the American-Statesman that Austin had already shifted to planting less water-dependent trees in preparation for last summer. Planting the right species at the right time definitely helps.

Cities are strapped for resources, making watering trees a challenge, but the right infrastructure could tap dirty water – from car washes, local reservoirs or excess rain that would otherwise end up down the storm drain – during the summer. Additional watering will assist trees on the margins of survival in making it through the dry season.

It’s also beneficial to plan for replacing older trees.

Solutions like these emerge from a sustained commitment to managing urban trees. Texas already has 72 Tree City USAs, including most of its largest cities, so it is clear that both motivation and resources exist to respond to these challenges, along with the passion of concerned professionals and the communities they serve.

You can find out more about the Texas Forest Service’s study here.

Photo courtesy of Fine Austin Living.