Does Texas really have a water problem?

Most Texans “know” that Texas has a water “problem.” In fact, the Texas Water Plan lists $63 billion in projects in order to “solve” this problem. 

In truth, however, Texas’s water problem is not what everyone thinks it is.  It’s not as acute as it has been portrayed.  And it shouldn’t be solved by throwing huge amounts of public money at it. 

Determining what our water problems are—and what they are not—requires analysis.  A central point to that analysis is focusing on the difference between consumptive uses of water and non-consumptive uses.

Consumptive uses are those in which water is lost to the atmosphere through evaporation (irrigated agriculture and lawn watering are the big ones). Water that is evaporated doesn’t cease to exist, of course, but most of what evaporates comes down as rain far from where it vanished into the atmosphere.

Non-consumptive uses of water are those in which the water can be captured and reused, either immediately or downstream. 

Understanding the difference crucial for Texas’s water future

Our most urgent uses of water—drinking, food, hygiene—are non-consumptive uses.  Water used for showering, flushing, and washing clothes or dishes goes down the drain and is captured and sent to a wastewater treatment plant.  There it is cleaned up enough to release it into a creek or river. 

This treated wastewater can be reclaimed, purified, and reused, usually at a cost substantially lower than developing new water supplies.  The techniques for reclaiming and recycling municipal water include state-of-the-art methods where water is forced through filters with pores so tiny they can filter out bacteria and viruses, and even salts, in some cases. 

Another method involves flowing the reclaimed water through man-made wetlands, where the wetland plants remove enough nitrogen, phosphorous, and other impurities to allow the water to be cycled safely back into a water supply lake.  With any of these methods, water can be repeatedly cleaned and reused.

Once a society learns to clean up and reuse the water that goes down the drain, it need never run out of water for non-consumptive purposes.  Thus the problem of water supply becomes one of providing water for consumptive uses. 

There are three principal categories of consumptive use:

  1. irrigation of agricultural crops,
  2. industrial cooling (including cooling steam electric generating plants), and
  3. landscape watering.

Consumptive uses are constrained primarily by cost. 

Take agriculture.  There is a potentially-infinite demand for water to irrigate crops in dry areas, but the costs are too high to be practical in most locales.  Farmers who irrigate their crops must compete economically with farmers in regions of higher rainfall, who don’t have to pay the costs of irrigation.  Irrigated agriculture is only competitive if water is available at little or no cost. 

For practical purposes, this means that irrigation is economically viable only (1) when groundwater is used or mined, (2) when the fields are adjacent to a river from which water can legally be taken, or (3) when taxpayers provide a public subsidy to private farmers.  All of these practices occur in Texas. 

Water for industrial cooling is similarly constrained by the price the company can afford to pay for water and still be profitable.  Industries and most electrical utilities are privately owned and self-supplied with water.  Their choice between wet cooling and dry cooling is an internal business decision and not relevant to public policy.  It is inappropriate to tax the public to subsidize a private company to use wet cooling when dry cooling avoids the high rate of water usage.

For agricultural use and industrial cooling, the amount of water “available” is strictly finite and is limited by the amount it is economically productive to pay.  Generally, reservoirs and extensive pipelines are too expensive for industrial and agricultural users to contemplate.  This is not due to an intrinsic shortage of water but rather to the cost of storage and conveyance.  Even free water from a river becomes expensive after a few miles of conveyance.

Which brings us to watering one’s lawn

In the case of lawn watering, many homeowners are willing to pay as much as ten times the amount economically acceptable to an agricultural or industrial user.  The State Water Plan contains billions of dollars in projects for reservoirs and pipelines so that city-dwellers can have lawns and landscapes that require more water than is natural for their locale. We wind up forcing ranchers and farmers off their productive agricultural land to inundate it for a reservoir to provide water for city lawns.

Given that reuse can supply unlimited water for non-consumptive uses and that irrigation and industry are constrained by market forces which are generally not relevant to public water policy, Texas’s remaining water question boils down to how our society provides water for our lawns. 

Fortunately, in most cases, there are simple, low-cost solutions that don’t involve investment in massive public water projects.  Landscaping with native plants, or with plants whose water requirements mimic the local native vegetation, mitigates the need for lawn watering to an occasional exceptional dry spell.  Capturing the rain run-off from the impervious cover associated with urban and suburban development (that is, from roads, driveways, and buildings where none of the water soaks in), in most cases, generates sufficient additional run-off to supply average demands for residential lawn watering. 

To give an example:  Under natural conditions, where most of the rainfall is soaking into a lawn or other vegetated landscape, an area with approximately 25 inches of annual rainfall (about what Abilene or Wichita Falls receives) will generate only three or four inches of run-off for a given area—a very limited potential water supply.  But every square foot of impervious cover, where none of the water soaks in, will generate the full 25 inches of run-off. 

Since lawns in such an area generally require approximately 12 inches of supplemental water, it follows that each square foot of impervious cover will generate enough run-off to “water” two square feet of lawn.  If we assume there are approximately 4,000 square feet of rooftop, driveways, sidewalks, city streets, and parking lots associated with each single-family home, there would be sufficient run-off to support 8,000 square feet of lawn for each house, an amount much larger than the average lawn. 

Integrating small retention ponds with urban development, an increasingly common practice, can capture a very large percentage of this run-off and make it available for urban use without the necessity for inundating large areas with surface reservoirs or building lengthy pipelines to bring water from rural areas. 

Texas's water "problem" and a One Water solution

Texas’s water “problem” is an out-of-date reliance on providing municipal water by building yet another reservoir and ever-longer pipelines when smaller, local solutions cost less and have fewer negative impacts. 

The One Water approach to planning—with emphasis on municipal reuse, green infrastructure, landscaping with native plants, and incorporating small retention ponds to slow down stormwater—can and should create a bright water future for Texas—and, indeed, for anyone, anywhere.


Janice Bezanson has been at the forefront of Texas conservation efforts, protecting rivers, forests, and water resources for more than 30 years. She has served as executive director of Texas Conservation Alliance (TCA) since 1998. She is a recognized leader in opposing unnecessary reservoir projects and promoting municipal water recycling and other low-impact water supply options. She has served on advisory boards for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and on the boards of a number of organizations, including American Lands Alliance and the Texas Land Conservancy. She was the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award. Janice may be contacted at 512-327-4119 or Janice@TCAtexas.org.


Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Advancing the state of Water, Texas with a One Water approach" 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 Mitchell Foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.   

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