Can Texas inform a sustainable path forward for U.S. water management?

To most Texans (and most Americans), water is a natural resource that is taken for granted. Because it’s available at our fingertips, most of us find it nearly impossible to imagine not having enough water. Despite popular belief, however, water is limited.

In Texas, we are especially aware of how limited water can be because we are a state that often times suffers prolonged drought. Drought, however, has been the catalyst for our state’s comprehensive and ambitious effort to ensure that we have enough water not only for the next decade but for the next five decades.

We have a regional water planning process that culminates in a state water plan every five years. The 2017 State Water Plan reports that we could face a shortage in a drought of 8.9 million acre-feet per year in 2070 if we do nothing. That means we must take necessary steps to efficiently manage and conserve the water we have and create additional supplies where needed. No easy task.

The good news: these steps are already identified and vetted by communities throughout the state, thanks to the efforts of 16 regional water planning groups. Their regional plans form the basis of the State Water Plan.

The State Water Plan provides an overview of existing (declining) water supplies; projected (increasing) demand and population growth; and recommended water management strategies that would address water shortages under drought of record conditions in the next 50 years.

Given our state’s diverse geography, communities’ water needs, resources, and supplies are also varied. There’s no one-size-fits-all fix to our water challenges, but there is one strategy type that stands out among the 5,500 strategies recommended by planning groups in the 2017 plan.

Conservation is recommended in all 16 regional water plans and associated with more than half of the 2,600 water user groups represented in the state water plan, a testament to conservation’s economic and logistical feasibility.

The types of conservation strategies recommended include agricultural conservation (such as irrigation canal lining, conversion to Low Energy Precise Application [LEPA] systems, and change in crop variety); municipal conservation (such as automatic metering systems, water system audits, water line repair and replacement, and public education and outreach); and a small percentage of strategies associated with steam-electric, manufacturing, and mining conservation activities.

Conservation provides approximately 2.3 million acre-feet per year of recommended strategy supplies in 2070. When conservation is combined with reuse, the two make up 45 percent of total strategy volumes—a significant increase compared to the 2012 State Water Plan, in which conservation and reuse were 34 percent of strategy volumes.

Because more capital-intensive conservation strategies are included in the 2017 plan, planning groups estimate a cost of more than $4.4 billion to implement these projects—a $3.4 billion increase over the 2012 plan.

If all recommended municipal conservation and reuse strategies are implemented by 2070, the projected statewide municipal average gallons per capita per day would decline to approximately 124 gallons per capita per day—making this the first state water plan to report meeting Texas’s Water Conservation Implementation Task Force’s statewide municipal total water use goal of 140 gallons per capita per day.

Looking at the bigger picture, if all strategies and projects outlined in the 2017 State Water Plan are implemented, they would meet nearly all the municipal water needs by 2070.

Years of water planning and studying Texas weather have taught us that history inevitably repeats itself and drought conditions will very likely continue to be a threat. Thankfully, we’re armed with the State Water Plan and a slew of effective strategies to help ensure sufficient water supply in the foreseeable future. Stay tuned for Part Two of my post, which further discusses our State Water Plan’s ability to guide the state of Texas toward a responsible and sustainable future.

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Bech Bruun was appointed Chairman of the Texas Water Development Board by Governor Greg Abbott on June 10, 2015. He has served as a Board member of the Texas Water Development Board since September 1, 2013. Bruun received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law. Follow Bech via Twitter @twdb_bech.

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Editor's Note: The Texas Water Development Board's mission is to provide leadership, information, education, and support for planning, financial assistance, and outreach for the conservation and responsible development of water for Texas.

The SWIFT program includes two funds, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas (SWIRFT). Revenue bonds for the program are issued through SWIRFT.

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Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Can Texas's approach to sustainability inform a path forward for the U.S.?," are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.

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