Texas is a surprising national leader in water conservation

In her 2013 book, Big, Hot Cheap and Right, journalist Erica Greider observes that Texas is an idiosyncratic place that regularly surprises.

The state is famous as the capital of the U.S. oil industry and for a pugnacious hostility to regulation and environmental protection. However, Texas is also the nation’s largest wind power producer—in fact, its wind generation capacity more than triples second place Iowa. Over 10 percent of the state’s electricity comes from wind—the highest percentage of any state. And the state government runs perhaps the most successful anti-littering campaign in history.

Here’s another way that Texas may surprise: it is a progressive leader in water conservation.

The state’s daily per capita residential water use is 88 gallons; that’s 11 percent lower than the national average of 98 gallons. It’s also 22 percent lower than New Mexico’s 107 gallons per day, 59 percent lower than Arizona’s 140 gallons per day, and 116 percent lower than Nevada’s 190 gallons per day.

Over the past five years, California has embarked on aggressive water conservation measures that reduced per capita residential water use by an impressive 54 percent (from 175 gallons a day to 113.5 gallons per day), but that’s still 29 percent more water than Texans use per day.

It would be easier to dismiss these numbers if Texans’ conservative water use had always been low, but that isn’t the case. In fact, between 2005 and 2010, Texas had one of the nation’s three greatest reductions in per capita water use.

The reality is Texas has achieved significant, sustained water conservation gains through intentional, aggressive action. While there have been many contributors to this ongoing success, here are potentially useful examples to other regions in the United States:

Expertise in urban drought management 

Texas experienced extreme drought from 2010 through 2015 (including the driest-ever-recorded year of 2011). Fortunately, Texas communities had already developed considerable expertise in urban drought management, and that made a big difference in communities’ resilience.

Most cities and regions, for instance, had well-established protocols for drought response. These included implementing escalating levels of water use restrictions at early stages of the drought based on factors such as reservoir and aquifer levels. By taking small and escalating steps at earlier stages of the drought, communities were largely able to avoid water-loss shocks.

Decentralized decision-making 

Texans are famously resistant to top-down, centralized control. In the area of water management, that has resulted in water use management largely being carried by regional river authorities and local governments. Hundreds of Texas communities have devoted considerable effort over the past 70 years (since the state’s drought of record from 1949 to 1957) figuring out ways to simultaneously thrive and use less water. This resulted in innovation at the local level.

Local innovation 

While national governments can always print more money, local governments can’t make more water. The math of water conservation is straight-forward and unforgiving: if water conservation efforts are unsuccessful, a community’s existence could be imperiled.

But scarcity is the seed corn of innovation. Scarcity combined with hundreds of local governments trying out new ideas to overcome and even thrive amidst this scarcity has established the foundations for innovation in water use.

San Antonio Water System (SAWS) is among the most innovative, rivaling Las Vegas in implementing new water-saving strategies. In 2013, the utility discontinued its 20-year-old program to replace high-flow toilet in replacements. Why? There were virtually no high-flow toilets left in the nation’s seventh largest city.

Now, SAWS has embraced the potential for big data to drive even greater levels of water conservation. The utility works with university researchers from around the world to design conservation programs and measure their impact through field trials and A/B testing. With funding and support from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, it has partnered with Pecan Street Inc. (my employer) to build what may be the largest internal water conservation database. It is already using this database to expand customer programs and to develop multi-variable algorithms for identifying the most effective mix of programs for each customer.

Meanwhile, a wide array of communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex have ramped up conservation efforts over the past decade by aggressively pursuing a mix of technology upgrades, education programs and applied research with universities.

In Corpus Christi, the nation’s fifth-largest port is moving forward with a seawater desalination project. The port accounts for 40 percent of the city’s overall water use; the seawater desalination plant will provide non-potable water for industrial users and will be paid for largely by these industrial users.

After carrying out extensive public education, Wichita Falls became one of the first cities in the world to implement direct reuse of wastewater. The project treats the city’s wastewater to drinking water standards and integrates it into the city’s overall water supply.

San Antonio Water System and Austin Water have both purchased large areas of habitat in their watersheds to provide both wildlife protection and aquifer and reservoir recharge.

Strong networks

A challenge with decentralized networks is how to diffuse innovations from one community to the broader population of communities. In Texas, strong networks of water utility planners and conservation officials in organizations such as the Central Texas Water Efficiency Network share best practices and results from individual utilities’ initiatives. The Texas Water Foundation plays a critical convening, research and education role. The Texas Water Development Board provides technical assistance, and it collects and shares original data.

WaterSense

Texas water conservation officials and community leaders are justifiably proud of the considerable success they have achieved in reducing household water use. They will also be the first to tell you they could not have done this alone.

One major contributor to Texas’s water conservation success story has been the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program, which sets voluntary water efficiency standards for household appliances and works with appliance makers to verify performance claims.

Water-using appliances such as dishwashers, toilets, shower heads and washing machines are dramatically more water efficient today thanks to WaterSense. Those efficiencies have provided outsized benefits to water-scarce regions—even to a place the size of Texas.

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Brewster McCracken is President and CEO of Pecan Street Inc., a nonprofit research institute based at The University of Texas at Austin. Previously, he served two-terms on the Austin City Council. Through this elected position, he served as a board member of Austin Energy and Austin Water, and founded and chaired the city council’s Emerging Technologies Committee. He is an honors graduate of Princeton University and The University of Texas School of Law, and holds a master’s degree in public affairs from UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. For more information, follow Brewster on Twitter @bmccracken and @PecanStreetInc, or visit www.PecanStreet.org.   

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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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