Hey Texas, what about climate change?

Water is a critical resource for many sectors of the economy. Besides being used to provide basic residential services, it is widely used for industrial processes, agricultural irrigation, power generation, and livestock production.

Irrigation has consistently been the largest user of water in the state, followed by municipal use, and manufacturing. Though there have been some years of significant reductions in water use for irrigation, total water use has averaged 15.6 million acre-feet since 1984. In 2010, the latest year for which data are available, total water use was 15.5 million acre-feet. 

In recent years, the state of Texas has experienced significant drought conditions. These drought conditions have been a cause for concern; as such, a water emergency has far-reaching implications for quality of life, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability.

As a result, there is growing interest in water management strategies to minimize the effects of these conditions. Water management strategies that can help mitigate the effects of drought conditions in the state of Texas could be classified as water conservation strategies, water efficiency strategies, and unconventional water supply strategies. 

Water conservation generally refers to the reduction of water use as a result of changes in behavior. These strategies can include reducing landscaping irrigation and changing the choice of landscaping. While there is a potential for water conservation efforts, there is likely a limit to how much water use can be reduced through water conservation alone, particularly because water conservation strategies for the industrial, power generation, and mining sectors are limited.

Water efficiency refers to reducing the amount of water needed to provide the same level of service, typically by employing more efficient technologies. In the residential sector, for example, water efficiency can be increased with the use of low flow showers, low volume toilets, and high efficiency washers.

Municipal water use, however, is just a fraction of total water use in Texas; other strategies are thus needed to improve water use efficiency. These may include greater use of drip irrigation in agriculture, increasing water pump efficiency, using dry-cooling systems for power generation, using combined heat and power technologies for industrial processes, reducing losses in water pipelines, using closed-loop water systems, etc.

Alternative and unconventional water sources could also help alleviate the effects of drought. Desalination and treatment of produced water from oil and gas operations, for example, could be a source of water. Similarly, the use of treated wastewater for landscape irrigation could reduce the burden on traditional water sources. 

Through its grant making, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation has been supporting research to evaluate the effectiveness of some of these strategies. With funding from the foundation, my own research team has evaluated the costs of deploying water efficient technologies in the residential and commercial sectors. 

We have found that statewide replacement of inefficient toilets, urinals, faucet aerators, showerheads, commercial dishwashers, commercial clothes washers, and pre-rinse spray valves in the commercial sector could reduce the projected state water deficit by 1 percent over the next fifty years at a negative net present cost. Xeriscaping, cooling water technologies, clothes washers, and icemakers could raise the water savings total to 4 percent.

Similarly, a recent post by Paul Faeth highlighted the strategies that stakeholders in Texas could successfully deploy to mitigate the effects of the hypothetical drought of 2030-2032. These strategies will be critically important, and it is reassuring to see many stakeholders in the state working on this issues. 

As a researcher focused on climate change impacts and adaptation, however, I am discouraged to see that in states like Texas and Florida the discussions about climate change continues to be relegated to the background. While I am sure that the Texas stakeholders working on water issues are considering it, I would argue that climate change should be front and center in the discussions about water policy. 

According to the recent National Climate Assessment Report, in the great plain region of the U.S., of which Texas is part, climate change will result in rising temperatures, which in turn will lead “to increased demand for water and energy.”  

These temperature-driven changes in demand will be in addition to those driven by increased population. Similarly, the report suggests, “the magnitude of expected changes will exceed those experienced in the last century.” 

Furthermore, “existing adaptation and planning efforts are inadequate to respond to these projected impacts.” These findings highlight the need to incorporate the effects of climate change on water resources management practices and planning for the state of Texas. To do so, some critical questions need to be answered: 

  • How will changes in precipitation and evaporation patterns that will result from climate change affect water levels in surface and groundwater sources?
  • How may changes in water temperatures affect the operations of large water users like power plants, or the provision of ecosystem services?
  • How will water conservation and efficiency strategies currently being deployed mitigate growth in demand driven by climate change and population growth?
  • How may climate change affect the economic viability of water management programs currently deemed unviable?

Mitigation strategies may still offer the opportunity to reduce the most severe effects of climate change, but some impacts are no longer avoidable. Ensuring the long-term availability of water resources for human and environmental wellbeing in the state of Texas requires that water managers and planners account for these climate impacts as they prepare for the future. 


About Dr. Paulina Jaramillo 

Originally from Medellin, Colombia, Dr. Paulina Jaramillo has a bachelor’s in civil and environmental engineering from Florida International University (2003), as well as a master's and PhD in civil and environmental engineering with an emphasis in green design from Carnegie Mellon University (2004 and 2007, respectively). As an assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, she is involved in key multi-disciplinary research projects to better understand the social, economic, and environmental implications of policy-driven changes in the operation of the U.S. energy system. For more information, follow Dr. Jaramillo on Twitter @PauliJllo.


The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. 


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