Op/Ed: Texas needs a new approach to water management before it's too late

Texas summer days are filled with the gasps and laughter of children as they cannonball into cold, refreshing spring-fed swimming holes like Jacob's Well, San Solomon Springs or Barton Springs.

The future of these Texas icons is in jeopardy as population growth and climate change stretch thin our precious water resources and complicate water management during our infamous weather extremes. The current water management paradigm in Texas does not adequately promote sustainable water management or, quite frankly, place a priority on sustaining the needs of our environment.

These challenges, however, are not unique to Texas. Across the United States and throughout the world, community leaders, water planners, and policymakers are wrestling with how best to manage water to maximize economic and social welfare equitably without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. Some are rethinking our traditional urban water management practices and working to advance a more resilient strategy called integrated water management, or One Water.

The concept of a coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources is not new although related policies and practices in Texas and across our nation are severely out of sync. Clear leadership is needed to drive a paradigm shift.

One Water promotes the management of all water within a specific geography — drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and grey water — as a single resource, a resource that must be managed holistically, viably and sustainably. This involves:

1.      Community decisions, not utility decisions. A One Water approach asks a community to consider and manage all water it holistically. The days of feeding vast Texas lawns with water so pure a newborn baby could drink it should cease immediately. The practice of funneling stormwater into concrete culverts should stop as soon as possible. And, municipal hierarchies that afford the city water utility the right to make water supply decisions independent of the stormwater manager or even the parks department or energy utility should become a thing of the past.

Instead, a community, and all the city management branches that affect water, should consider all water available in their system and all water needs (including drinking, parks, energy production and delivery, and maintaining natural assets) alongside one another. This approach avoids the false choice of working for the economy or environment or society and, rather, recognizes the critical importance of sustaining the community's water resources for the public good.

2.      Collaboration is the essential building block. Under the current system of water management, different streams of water are compartmentalized and managed in almost complete isolation from one another. Collaboration is critical for making decisions that are truly in the best interest of the community and water resources. These practices, however, don't come easily. Collaboration, often times between disparate audiences, requires committed leadership, common sense, political capital, a diversity of participants and institutions, and the right supporting tools and techniques.

3.      It's not going to be easy, but if anyone can do it, Texans can. A transition to a One Water approach is inevitable but can be a painstaking and challenging journey for our communities. One Water is challenged by the inertia that comes with any systemic change, particularly a system that's been the default practice for decades.

Yet it's because of the leadership and tenacity of a few innovators that we see examples of One Water by state agencies and in cities across Texas. Texas is the national leader in water reuse. The State Water Implementation Fund of Texas, with its 20 percent conservation set-aside, puts real money on the table for conservation. The city of Austin is developing a 100-year integrated water resource plan; cities like Arlington and Mesquite are embracing green infrastructure in new and innovative ways; and Fort Worth is taking resource recovery to new heights.

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation is committed to supporting Texas's transition to One Water and sustaining our state's water resources. With an eye on the future, we aim to inform change-makers and fuel solutions to manage our water for generations to come.

Sarah Richards is the water program officer for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. This column is an excerpt prepared for The Dallas Morning News from the foundation's new report, Advancing One Water in Texas.

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