Water Program FAQs

Q: What is the water landscape in the state of Texas?

A: The state of Texas is one of the most privately owned jurisdictions in the world. Approximately 95 percent of the state’s land is privately held.

The implications for the environment and water resources are profound. Texas has become one of the most urbanized states in the United States, and, as a result, large tracts of agricultural and rural land are lost every year to development and sprawl. With increasing tax burdens passed from one generation to the next, more inherited rural land is sold for development than ever before.

As the size of tracts of land in Texas diminishes, wildlife habitat is lost, open space disappears, and, most noteworthy for the future of the state, the function of watersheds is irrevocably impaired.

In fact, the issues associated with ensuring sufficient clean water for both economic growth and the environment is the most significant and urgent environmental concern facing Texas in this generation.

The recent record droughts of 2008-2009 and 2011—one that the New York Times reported as the “worst one-year drought since Texas began keeping rainfall records in 1895” with the “real fear that this may not be a one- or two-year drought, but the kind that lasts for 30 or 40 years…”—highlight Texas’s water resource challenge.

Q: What is the state of Texas’s State Water Plan?

A: In response to the 1950s drought-of-record, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) instituted a process for adopting a state water plan. The State Water Plan is updated every five years, and the current $53.1 billion plan was approved in December 2011. 

The plan’s primary message is that, in serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises. It emphasizes that not implementing the plan could have dire economic consequences—economic losses could soar to $116 billion by 2060.

In November 2013 Texas voters approved Proposition 6, which established a new water infrastructure fund, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT), to provide loans for projects identified in the State Water Plan. 

The legislation stipulates that 20 percent of the funding should go to ‘conservation and reuse,’ with an additional 10 percent to agricultural water conservation.

Q: How urgent is Texas’s water problem?

A: The population in Texas is expected to increase by 82 percent by 2060. Texas’s water supplies are simply not adequate to support this growing demand.

The 2012 State Water Plan [JO1] estimates that Texas will need an additional 8.3 million acre-feet of water supply by 2060. The Comptroller’s Office states that failure to meet this need could result in the loss of more than one million jobs and a reduction in state revenue of approximately $116 billion by 2060. The good news is that, during this same time period, water demand will increase by only 22 percent. The not-so-good news is that current water supplies will decrease by about 10 percent.

However, a recent report by the non-profit Texas Center for Policy Studies (TCPS) finds that the current water planning process in Texas tends to over-estimate future water demand and under-estimate the potential for making better use of existing supplies. The report shows that, with more reasonable demand projections and better use of conservation and drought management, the demand/supply gap in 2060 will be less than one-half that predicted by the current 2012 State Water Plan issued by the TWDB. That is, rather than an 8.3 million acre-feet/year gap between demand and supply in 2060 (as estimated in the State Water Plan, a more realistic gap will be about 3.3 million acre-feet/year. 

The most urgent step in addressing the expected water shortfall is to revamp the state planning process to provide more accurate and objective estimates of future water needs.

Q: How could Texas’s population increase by over 80 percent by 2060 but water demand increase only 22 percent during the same period?

A: This is an important observation. According to the State Water Plan, demand for municipal and industrial uses will increase significantly; however, demand for agricultural irrigation water is expected to decrease during this same period.

The foundation expects that successful water conservation impacts will reduce per capita municipal demand, industrial processes will become more and more water efficient, and agricultural users will leave the market or become more efficient as well. Thus, despite overall growth in population and industrial activity, we expect total water demand to flatten out even more than the 22 percent estimated in the State Water Plan.

Q: What is the significance of the state of Texas Supreme Court’s ruling on Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day?

A: On February 24, 2012, after two years of deliberation, the Court ruled on the case Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day—one of the most significant water law cases in decades. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that a landowner owns the groundwater under his or her land “in place” as a property right that cannot be taken for public use without adequate compensation guaranteed by the Takings Clause of the Texas Constitution

The decision is likely to have wide-ranging effects for landowners’ rights, as well as impact on the regulation of groundwater by the state’s 96 established groundwater conservation districts.

Q: Why is the foundation involved in water policy issues?

A: Water is, arguably, the most important long-term issue facing the state of Texas. The foundation asks hard questions and looks for solution-based answers in a non-politically charged environment.

Water issues are controversial, and it is often difficult for policymakers to address the deeply rooted systemic issues, such as

  1. disconnects in policy between groundwater and surface water management;
  2. agricultural inefficiencies;
  3. infrastructure leakage;
  4. trade-offs between the environment and the economy; and
  5. increased competition between water users such as agricultural vs. urban, recreational vs. agricultural, and environmental vs. municipal.

Q: Isn’t Texas’s State Water Plan designed to comprehensively address Texas water issues?

A: A lot of hard work went into developing Texas’s State Water Plan. The process for developing a state water plan was put in place in response to the 1950s drought of record—a process that placed Texas as a leader among states in water planning. The planning process is a bottom-up approach, designed so communities may contribute input into their water future. However, the current plan is limited in several ways, including

  1. desired infrastructure projects are not ranked by priority;
  2. strategies for conservation are not specified although 25 percent of future water supplies are projected to come from conservation;
  3. water needs for the environment are not considered;
  4. new demands for water by hydraulic fracturing are not included; and
  5. climate trends are not integrated into future water supply estimates.

A recent analysis by the Texas Center for Policy Studies makes recommendations to strengthen the state water planning process. They include:

  1. move away from current “single scenario” forecasts to an approach that looks at a range of future scenarios;
  2. use more reasonable assumptions about the need for water for future steam electric generation;
  3. enhance consideration of drought contingency planning as a supply strategy;
  4. more thoroughly consider brackish groundwater desalination as a supply strategy;
  5. gather and use more accurate data on current water use; and
  6. make healthy rivers and bays and vibrant rural economies co-equal with other goals of the water planning process.

Q: What is unique about the foundation’s Water Program?

A:  Consistent with the sustainability science approach that characterizes the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s grantmaking, the foundation’s Water Program aims to increase the scientific understanding of water issues in Texas, which informs the design of effective policy approaches to ensure that the water quantity needs of the environment are met. The sustainability science framework focuses on moving from knowledge (scientific research) to action (policy design and implementation) by utilizing interdisciplinary, place-based, and adaptive management methods to design the foundation’s program strategy and grantmaking portfolio.

Q: What are the specifics of the foundation’s Water Program?

A:  To address Texas’s water management challenges and ensure adequate water supplies for the environment, the Water Program’s resources support efforts to

  1. define the “grand challenges” of water management and the scientific, policy, and legal investigations necessary to address intractable questions;
  2. increase water conservation in major Texas cities through urban water conservation programs and utility business model reform;
  3. protect water resources in the Texas Hill Country through landowner engagement and a science-based identification of the most critical water resources;
  4. ensure adequate instream flows and freshwater inflows to bays and estuaries through policy and innovative market efforts; and
  5. achieve water and energy savings through in-depth analysis and policy development related to the energy-water nexus.
© 2012-2017 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.