Texas is doing water right. Can the state inform a sustainable path forward for the U.S.? -Part 2

As I discussed in my first post of this series, the 2017 State Water Plan provides a 50-year outlook on the water supplies and demands of our state and outlines strategies to meet potential needs during drought of record conditions.

If all strategies and projects in the 2017 plan are implemented, they would meet nearly all the municipal water needs by 2070. The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is confident in the State Water Plan’s ability to guide the state toward a responsible and sustainable future. Here’s why:

The support and expertise provided at the local and regional level are unparalleled.

When the water planning process was restructured 20 years ago to divide the state into 16 planning regions, we shifted from the state’s top-down approach to a regionally led, bottom-up approach. As a result, we rely on the expertise of the 16 all-volunteer planning groups, which include voting members from at least 12 specific interests (although many planning groups have more than the required number of voting positions to ensure that a broader number of interests are represented).

Planning groups evaluate how water user groups in their regions—municipal, irrigation, manufacturing, livestock, mining, and steam-electric power—would fare under drought conditions over the next 50 years by forecasting population and related water demands; assessing existing water supplies; identifying water needs (potential shortages); and recommending strategies for each entity to meet those potential shortages under drought conditions.

Naturally, planning groups and those responsible for actually developing water projects consider their own interests and geography when recommending projects. Active involvement by project sponsors, such as cities or wholesale water providers that will support and pay for projects, is key. As long as the cost is borne by these local entities, planning groups will continue to prioritize strategies that they believe can be reasonably implemented and financed in a timely manner. Conservation is a tried and true strategy from which communities are seeing real results.

The regional water plans are based on scientific and quantitative logic.

The strategies chosen for each regional water plan are backed by the detailed, quantitative assessments of population, demands, and supplies. To help ensure that cities and businesses aren’t short of water, planning groups use realistic forecasts and plan for only the amount of water that can legally and physically be pumped in drought conditions without over-allocating any water sources. Groundwater and surface water models are one of the important tools we use to help us develop quantifiable supplies. The emphasis on constraint-based, numerical water planning using the best available, actionable information has obligated planning groups to explicitly recognize water resource limits and develop credible plans within those limits.

To protect their integrity and coherency, plans rely on the use of a variety of credible data and consistent application of widely accepted technical analyses approved by the TWDB. Statute and planning rules require that planning groups address specific water planning steps, each structured to lead to a concrete numerical outcome or recommendation.

The role of the state is clearly defined.

Per Texas Water Code, planning groups are required to consider all potentially feasible strategies when addressing their future water needs, and any one technology is not promoted over another. This means that, while the legislature has some oversight in the process, in the end, strategy recommendations remain those of planning groups.

The legislature’s investment in creating policy to guide water planning efforts and in generating funding sources significantly contributes to regions’ abilities to implement state water plan projects, as we’ve seen through the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT)* program.

The SWIFT program was established by the 83rd Texas Legislature and voters in 2013 to finance approximately $27 billion for state water plan projects over a 50-year period. Of the money disbursed from SWIFT during the five-year period between the adoption of a state water plan and the adoption of a new plan, no less than 20 percent of the funds are to be used in support of conservation and reuse projects.

The program proved its ability to serve its purpose in just its first two cycles (2015 and 2016), when the TWDB committed $4.5 billion in funding. In line with the increase in conservation and reuse projects proposed in the 2017 State Water Plan, the 2016 SWIFT funding cycle also saw considerable increases in conservation and reuse projects—representing over 35 percent of the total dollars committed by the TWDB that cycle.

Will this path forward translate to the positive outcomes we predict and need for Texas and potentially inform a sustainable path forward for the U.S.? I believe so, but it will require our ongoing commitment and effort. Texas is worth watching. We’re doing water planning right—at least for our state—and the process is working.

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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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