Agreeing to disagree on state's future water needs

How much more water will Texas really need by 2060?

The 2012 state water plan, the state’s strategy for meeting water needs, estimated that Texas would face a shortfall of 2.7 trillion gallons a year by 2060, and that filling the gap would take an estimated $53 billion in new infrastructure.

But some water law and planning specialists said that the water needs had been overstated. A report for the nonprofit Texas Center for Policy Studies, an environmental research group, said that Texas would need only an additional 1.1 trillion gallons of water a year by 2060, in part because the state plan overestimated future agricultural demands and underestimated the effects of conservation measures.

The Texas Water Development Board, which wrote the state plan, acknowledged that some of its assumptions might need to be revised and that the predicted demand might fall as the plan is updated every five years. But the board also called some of the center’s assumptions unrealistic, noting that every community’s water needs and ability to conserve water were different.

If the state’s water needs are far lower than projected, the implications for state policy may be significant. In November, in the throes of a historic drought, voters approved spending $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to help finance new sources of water. Good data is crucial for water planning, the report’s authors say, and inaccurate information may have severe consequences.

“Once policy makers, the media and the public see that single number, it tends to be taken as gospel,” wrote the authors of the Center for Policy Studies report, Mary Kelly and Rick Lowerre, who are environmental lawyers, and Joe Trungale, an engineer and hydrologist.

The report specifically questioned the state water plan’s projection for agricultural water needs, in part because a dwindling water supply in the Southern High Plains was already forcing corn and cotton growers to cut back. While irrigation in that region accounts for almost a quarter of the projected increase in needed water by 2060 — nearly 800 billion gallons a year — the Ogallala Aquifer is rapidly being sucked dry, making agricultural expansion unlikely, the report said.

The problem, the study’s authors said, was that lowering the projected needs for the Southern High Plains would make a statement on the future of farming that area residents were not ready to embrace.

“The plan can’t make there be more water in the aquifer,” said Ken Rainwater, a professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock who specializes in water resources management. Residents may hope that the current level of farming in the Southern High Plains can continue through 2060 and even expand, he said, but “that’s just not going to happen.”

Cities also may be overestimating their needs, the report says. The region that includes the fast-growing Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan areaprojects that it will need nearly a trillion gallons more water a year by 2060. But conservation strategies like reducing lawn watering and using more efficient appliances have already reduced that number since a previous state plan was released in 2007.

Calculations in the Center for Policy Studies report suggest that if such conservation measures are enhanced, the Dallas-Fort Worth region could reduce its 2060 demand by as much as 200 billion gallons a year, or about as much water as would be supplied by a controversial and expensive project the region is considering — the $3.3 billion Marvin Nichols Reservoir in East Texas.

“Do I think we can eliminate the need for some projects? Yes. That’s what we’re actively trying to accomplish,” said Dan Buhman, assistant general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District, which would benefit from Marvin Nichols. But he added that some expensive water projects would have to be built, and almost every project involved controversy.

Even if Texas won’t need 2.7 trillion gallons of additional water a year within the next five decades, tens of billions of dollars may still have to be spent. Elizabeth Fazio, the director and chief clerk for the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, said the state had already delayed needed water infrastructure so long that it was bound to get more expensive.

“We may be able to stretch our current water resources further by doing more conservation,” Ms. Fazio said. “But the fact still remains that infrastructure still costs money, and the more people we have, the more that number is going to grow.”


Note: The report, Learning From Drought: Next Generation Water Planning for Texas, was made possible by: The Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation (, and The Meadows Foundation (

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