Understanding the synergies of the Texas water-energy-land nexus

The state of Texas has an independent streak. Its possession of water and energy to a large extent are homegrown (and, obviously, so is its land).

In regard to water resources, with the exception of the Rio Grande River to the southwest and the Red River on the northern border, nearly all the water found in river basins within the state originates within its borders, and is fed by either rainfall or groundwater discharge.

Texas, which has the second highest state GDP in the country, cannot rely on water inflow from other states for future use.

In regard to electricity energy resources, Texas operates under its own electrical grid interconnect (managed by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas [or ERCOT]), with few connections to the rest of the United States. The electricity used in Texas is created in Texas.

Much has been written about the connections between water, energy, and land across the U.S. and globally (often called the water-energy nexus). These conversations are meant to illustrate the strong feedback loops between these very tangible, physical resources, and how policy and management decisions on one resource affect the quantity and movement of another resource (e.g., often referred to as stocks and fluxes) and the potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

These connections could be visualized and studied more closely using a scenario-based, computer program that tracks and analyzes the use of natural resources in time, helps to improve resource reliability, all the while accounting for uncertainties in supply and demand. These models are sometimes call decision support systems.

The value in studying these resource pools and their connections is that researchers, stakeholders and decision makers can better understand the nuances, complexities, and implications of resource management decisions, particularly in the face of rising populations, land-use change, and variability in regional climate (e.g., droughts and floods).

Over the past decade or so, a class of modeling tools has been developed, and our understanding of the water-energy-land nexus has progressed to the extent that researchers and stakeholders can examine these connections in a quasi-physically- and geographically-based way.

For example, recently, BP organized the Energy Sustainability Challenge (ESC), in part, to better understand connections between water and energy (how much water is needed for energy production and vice versa). The ESC helped define water-energy-land relationships, allowing for more confident predictions of future water, land and energy needs based on population growth and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), critical variables influencing energy projections.

For large corporate entities that make substantial investment decisions, resource availability assessments are needed throughout the life of their assets. For example, decisions to invest in a particular energy source (whether hydrocarbons, wind or solar) require, among other things, a thorough understanding of current and future water and land resource needs. If resources become limited, the flexibility of management decisions becomes limited too.

Substantial efforts have been undertaken to understand these water-energy-land connections, especially those devoted to understanding the water intensity (volume of water per unit of energy) for fossil energy and electricity production. These efforts, focused on Texas, have yielded databases and insights into water use and have shown that overall water use in the energy industry is a relatively small and manageable percentage of total water use, but those percentages change from location to location, and in ways that could require increased management strategies.

The land footprint is being studied now, beginning with the Eagle Ford play. Results from show that land disturbance between 2001 and 2012, in the heart of the play, led to a reduction of ~213 mi2 of contiguous (core) areas that could be suited for a variety of flora and fauna. As drilling proceeds, management practices can be used to mitigate further impacts.

Our efforts for analyzing data differ from those used to create recent, global pictures of water resource allocations. We focus at the well-by-well and pad-by-pad resolution, allowing a geographically-specific understanding of the amount of water and land used in energy production.

By studying the nexus at this high level of resolution, we can ask and answer questions on whether resource availability, relative to water and land use, can be met as the state of Texas maintains exploration and production activity, and as other segments of Texas’ economy continue to mature and grow.

Our overall goals are to reduce risks relative to water supply, and to reduce land impacts. These strategies, though interesting and important, need to be compiled into a decision support system, as described above, that optimizes linkages between water and land demand and supply, relative to quantity and quality. We also need to also address issues of vulnerability (e.g., to climate variability, droughts, etc.), reliability, and sustainability—all of which introduce challenges to predicting outcomes.

Why are these studies important? 

We view important outcomes of this research as influencing public perception and informing decisionmakers, relative to governance structures for water and land resources management, upon which policy decisions can be based. We also view a reduction in risk as an important outcome. Increased knowledge can be used for improved management and planning, thereby allowing economic activities to proceed, and Texas to lead.


Dr. Michael Young is associate director for Environmental Systems and senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin. He coordinates research programs for a group of some 30 scientists involved in a variety of research spanning water-energy issues, geological sequestration of CO2, groundwater recharge processes, water quality and resources, coastal processes and geological mapping. Dr. Young holds a B.A. and M.S. in geological sciences from Hartwick College and Ohio University, respectively. He earned his Ph.D. in soil and water science from the University of Arizona. For more information, follow Twitter @TXgeosciences.


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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