Confidence in Conservation: The Way Forward for Texas

In an unprecedented move, California Governor Jerry Brown recently issued a sweeping executive order to reduce municipal water consumption by 25 percent throughout the state. The “drought of the century” forced the administration to mandate that California water districts follow more than 30 directives, though local water agencies can still determine the most cost effective and locally feasible measures to meet their conservation marks.

In July of this year, the state announced that Californians are meeting the state’s goal, reducing water consumption by 27.3 percent compared to the same time in 2013.

“In normal years, water use rises dramatically in the hot summer months. But this year, during the hottest June on record, Californians proved that that they have the ingenuity and commitment to meet this challenge,” said Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Texans know all too well what Californians are going through. When Texas was faced with its own historic drought in 2011, the state eyed many of the same proposals. At 24 percent, Texas’ State Water Plan calls for a similarly high level of new supplies to come from conservation by 2060. Texas being Texas, however, has eschewed executive orders and mandates, instead leaving its patchwork of regional water planners, authorities, and individual utilities to establish and meet their own goals—a crucial distinction from how California has responded.

This spring Texas finally got significant relief as heavy rains eased 86 percent of the state out of drought conditions, but California should serve as a bright neon warning sign that we must be prepared for the next inevitable lengthy dry spell.

Luckily, we now have many tools to help our water utilities get on pace. As a result of Texas voters passing Proposition 6 in 2013, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) can help finance myriad projects—including those that encourage conservation—to provide future water supplies. This July, the TWDB approved the first round of such financing, which will issue almost $4 billion to utilities and water authorities across the state within the next 10 years. The TWDB is also required to apply no less than 20 percent of the financing toward water conservation measures. It satisfied this requirement in the first round of funding.

But to meet Texas’ conservation marks, major questions for utilities and regional planners remain: How much conservation must our region account for? Which strategies will be the most cost effective for our utility? Will our conservation plans put us on pace under the state water plan? Will the region’s efforts put the state on pace?

With help from the Cynthia and George P. Mitchell Foundation, the Goldwater Project serves to answer these questions and make conservation a source of water Texas can truly rely on.

The Goldwater Project’s aim is to work with regional planning groups to track, quantify, and accurately project the progress of water conservation activity so that the state can meet the high levels set out in the State Water Plan. Meeting the 24 percent mark is imperative to lessen our reliance on expensive infrastructure projects that are often hard to get approved, and knowing where we actually stand makes meeting our goals realistic and achievable. Water planners need to know they can rely on their plan’s conservation goals to become a reality, not simply a number in a document.

Over the past three years, the Goldwater Project team has executed the project in Region H in Texas, which is comprised of Harris County and the surrounding 14 counties. With the region making up 25 percent of the state’s population, it serves as a cornerstone of the overall conservation landscape.

To meet its objectives, the Goldwater team engages cities, municipal utility districts (MUDs), and other utilities to collect certain data to populate a sophisticated water-tracking tool. The tracking tool provides a standardized methodology for water savings and benefit-cost accounting and includes a library of pre-defined, fully parameterized conservation activities from which to construct conservation programs.

Through staff interviews, the team determines what conservation strategies are currently in place or have been previously implemented. We stress that these strategies must be quantifiable for the tool to provide accurate water savings figures. We then use the tool and other methods to properly quantify savings and project how future strategies, if necessary, will provide cost effective conservation options for the utility to achieve its share of the county goal.

The team issues comprehensive reports to each utility that provide data on water consumption and specific conservation strategies. We then present several ways the utility can accomplish its goals. In addition, the reports provide guidance on how to build consensus around water conservation at the municipal level, results from the tracking tool, options on adjusting for changes in rate and revenue requirements, and tips on addressing implementation challenges.

Lastly, the team provides county and regional reports that detail its findings to planners who in turn use the information to plan around the conservation piece of the puzzle.

The project is helping the TWDB by being the “last mile” between the self-reported water conservation plans it requires from utilities and the actual implementation and tracking of conservation in real time. The project’s results go a long way to making reporting more accurate, fast, and reliable.

Equipped with this information, Texas stakeholders can work together to shore up deficits in meeting the county goals, form a plan for the future, and establish accountability. When individual utilities are on track, it leads to the county being on track. When counties are on track, the region is on track and the businesses and people who inhabit the region are the ultimate beneficiaries.

As the summer heats up in Texas, the Goldwater Project is giving the state confidence that conservation will provide an essential safeguard to future drought conditions and help achieve a sustainable Texas.

 

Former Texas State Senator Kip Averitt is founder of the Goldwater Project. Sen. Averitt is also chair, the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, and a board member of the Texas Nature Conservancy and Texas Water Foundation. He is president of Averitt & Associates an Austin-based public affairs firm. He holds a B.B.A. and an M.B.A. in economics and finance from Baylor University. 

 

The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation.  

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