This necessary resource is water. Given the record-breaking drought and heat our state experienced last summer, the issue of water has never been more relevant. According to the National Weather Service, in 2011 Texas experienced the hottest summer in U.S. history and suffered its largest agricultural losses. Average rainfall for 2011 was just 14.88 inches, breaking a record that had stood since 1917.
The gravity of the situation can be found in some basic facts. Of all the water found on earth, 97 percent is salty and 2.5 percent is locked in ice. We are fueling the world’s economies, cultures and communities on the remaining half-percent. And the overall amount of water on the planet is the same today as it was thousands of years ago. Water, in simple terms, is a fixed asset.
More and more people are sharing this resource, and the world’s population is growing fast — 7 billion today, 9 billion in 50 years. Texas’ population is doing the same — 25 million people today, nearly 50 million by 2060.
And then there’s the drought, which is predicted to last at least through June. Last year, the drought cost the state’s economy $5.2 billion in crop and cattle production losses. The Texas Water Development Board has calculated the cost of doing nothing. It estimates that, by 2060, the impacts of water shortages on residential water consumers combined with losses to regional economies from reduced production in agriculture, industry and commerce could be as high as $116 billion a year.
Globally, we are already seeing devastating results from water shortages. The World Bank reports more than 1 billion people lack access to clean water, and 80 countries are experiencing critical water shortages that threaten health and economies. More than 16 percent of the world’s population lives in river basins where water use exceeds minimum recharge levels. This means devastating damage to the health of rivers and streams and everything that lives in them.
There are so many warning signs that the real question is why haven’t we done something already? Too much is at stake — our economies, cultures, communities and arguably our security are all at risk.
Fifty years ago, Texas experienced the drought of record — which simply means the worst drought we had ever seen. Following that drought, big thinkers made big decisions. They invested in infrastructure to expand existing surface water supplies, cultivate unexplored groundwater supplies, and store and conserve more water. This big thinking led to the formation of the Texas Water Development Board in 1957 and the construction of 69 dams between 1957 and 1970, including Longhorn Dam (which created Lady Bird Lake in 1960). Former Gov. Allan Shivers also helped create a seven-point plan for drought relief that included incentives for water conservation practices. The leaders of that era were determined to solve problems instead of passing them along.
The investments of the 1950s have gotten us this far, but won’t carry us much further. The supplies that those projects generated are being used by today’s population to support today’s economy. But it’s our turn to think about the future. Will our children and grandchildren characterize us as big thinkers that made big decisions on their behalf?
Time — like water — can run out. And there are no silver bullet solutions. Solving our water problems will require an array of tactics revolving around three basic strategies:
• Managing our limited water supplies to provide for a growing population.
• Driving water use down everywhere.
• Guaranteeing water quality is protected. We simply can’t afford to spoil what we can’t replace.
First, we must manage our supplies. Unlike many other states we have a legislatively approved water plan that is our road map for the future. The plan, dubbed “Water for Texas,” was created at the regional level and finalized by the Texas Water Development Board, which is also charged with aspects of its implementation. The plan outlines proposals to address our water challenges, including building new reservoirs, pipelines (to move water around the state) and water treatment plants (for communities that have water supplies but no capacity to treat them). It also calls for about 25 percent of our future water supply to come from conservation.
But here’s the hard part. The cost to design, construct and implement those projects is $53 billion. And our local utilities tell us they’ll need
$27 billion in state financial assistance to do this. So how do we get there?
Step one is to align existing state funding. For years, Texas has operated a set of revolving loan programs to address water infrastructure issues. On Nov. 8, voters authorized a total of $6 billion to address those very issues. While not an annual allocation, it’s certainly a start. That $6 billion is authorized for loan and grant programs that currently fund a variety of water, wastewater and flood control projects — all worthy programs, undoubtedly. But the question is about priorities in a time of very limited financial resources. How many of those programs tie directly to the $53 billion price tag? And more importantly, how many tie to the $27 billion our local communities are counting on?
We need to align existing money to guarantee our expenditures comply with our state’s most pressing priorities and the Legislature’s plan for solving them. We have a newly minted water plan — our crystal ball, so to speak. Let’s make sure each and every dollar the state spends solves our specific problems.
The second piece in solving our water crisis puzzle is clear: Drive water use down. Our state plan is counting on each and every one of us to use less water. We’re going to have to stop asking “How much can I have?” and start asking “How much do I need?” This same ethic should be built into funding the water plan. All of the projects in that plan should have to show how they’ve incorporated conservation into their utility planning. This should not be a box-checking exercise. The conservation results need to be demonstrable.
Let’s start by focusing on where water is being lost. In Texas, 60 percent of water is used to grow food, but a good portion of that loss is due to issues like improper irrigation. The agriculture industry estimates 30 percent of the water used to grow food across the globe is lost. That’s unimaginable waste. We know not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Now, let’s keep the bathwater.
The state should provide grants to farmers and ranchers to replace old and outdated irrigation equipment. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Texas who isn’t familiar with the sight of a hulking sprinkler spraying a wide circle of water around a vast acreage of land. It turns out those waste a lot of water. Modern irrigation equipment — which uses technology to determine moisture levels — is significantly more efficient. Updated irrigation techniques combined with proper lining of water canals to prevent water seepage can put a significant dent in that 30 percent water loss figure. The state benefits by conserving resources and the agricultural community boosts their bottom line by utilizing water more efficiently.
Similarly, cities should prioritize replacing aging infrastructure so that valuable water isn’t lost through leaky pipes. Municipal water usage is expected to increase in the future, so losing between 5 and 15 percent of all water used is unacceptable. Moreover, cities should begin employing reuse as a major water supply strategy. This “gray water” is cheaper than fully treated water and works well for landscape and certain industrial and manufacturing uses.
Another increasingly talked-about strategy is the use of desalination plants, which strip the minerals from saltwater to make it potable. El Paso is a good example of a city that turned to desalination sooner rather than later. There is no question that, over time, desalination will be a part of solving water shortages in Texas and other parts of the world, but in the short term, we must remember two important facts: It’s expensive and it uses a lot of energy. Before touting desalination as a standalone strategy, we have to realize that water and energy go hand in hand.
We have a statewide water plan with a fatal flaw — a lack of funding. With energy, millions are being invested, but there’s no plan. Because energy is an expensive component of water production and distribution and many forms of energy require significant amounts of water, the two are inextricably linked. The same population that will require clean water will require reliable energy. The pressures on our water supplies call for us to plan for energy. An energy plan that plans responsibly for water use will fix this.
Finally, we have to motivate people and businesses everywhere to use less water. There are some creative rate structures and innovative technologies that can help, as well as a few emerging leaders from the private sector. Coca-Cola has worked with The Nature Conservancy on a zero-water footprint program. For every drop of water used in Coke’s bottling plants, the company invests in water protection somewhere on the planet. Levi Strauss has introduced no-water blue jeans and sews tags into their jeans urging customers to wash less and use cold water to conserve energy. These initiatives make conservation cool and get everyone involved.
The final strategy in addressing our water problem is protecting water quality. Clean water is essential to our rivers, streams, lakes and aquifers, and everything that lives in or relies on them. Water is life. Keeping it clean protects life and will ultimately save money that won’t be spent on clean-up projects and expensive water treatment processes.
Land conservation within major watersheds and aquifers can profoundly impact the quantity and quality of fresh water. Central Texas represents a best practice for this strategy. For years, Austin, San Antonio, and Travis and Hays counties have held successful bond elections to purchase open space and conservation easements over the Edwards Aquifer. In the past decade, these local governments and the Conservancy have worked extensively to invest more than $600 million in practical water protection.
It is also vitally important to continue the work we’ve been doing as part of the environmental flows process set up by the Legislature in 2007. This process establishes the minimum flows that major river basins require to maintain healthy ecosystems and ensure that enough fresh water flows into our bays and estuaries; the Conservancy has provided important science in this arena.
Establishing minimum flows is not only important for the health of our inland rivers and streams, but also for one of our most precious Texas resources, the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty U.S. rivers flow into the Gulf, including every major river in Texas, and the Gulf is an unbelievably important economic engine for Texas. It is imperative that we work to protect it.
The strategies outlined here require modern structures to guide action and guarantee results. For example, we need a state-created drought crisis and remedies commission; members shouldn’t necessarily represent existing committee or political parties, but they should bring different perspectives to the table: urban and rural interests, scientific knowledge and practical experience in water planning. Next, we need corporate leadership from organizations like Coca-Cola that have a demonstrated interest. And, of course, we need thought leaders who have a proven track record in protection. Let’s solve the immediate problem with a new mix of partners — let’s rewrite the playbook.
The longer-term solution is to keep this exact mix of interests together as a water solutions consortium. It’s time to recognize that quick fixes really won’t provide solutions that stand the test of time.
The leaders of our state were crawling out of a record drought 50 years ago that threatened the state’s future. At the time, fewer than 10 million people lived here. This year, we are in a new drought of record, and this time, there are 2.5 times as many people living in Texas. That’s a lot of straws in our rivers, streams and aquifers.
Last summer was useful. It provided tangible evidence of what we’re facing. Let’s use our crystal ball to act decisively. When our children and grandchildren look back, let’s show them that we thought of them.
Reprint from Statesman.com By Laura Huffman