Texas’s swimming holes need One Water

The redbuds are blooming, a sure sign that spring is here with summer heat soon to follow. Summer heat means summer days 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 our beloved Texas icons is in jeopardy as population growth and climate change stretch thin our precious water resources and complicate water management during our famous 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 growth and social equity without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. Some are rethinking our traditional urban water management practices and working to advance a more resilient strategy referred to as integrated water management or “One Water.”

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

While a coordinated approach to development and management of water, land, and related resources is not new, current policies and practices in Texas are severely out of sync. Clear leadership is needed to drive and support a paradigm shift.

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation commissioned the report Advancing One Water in Texas to help inform a path forward. For changemakers committed to our natural resources, I offer three observations about a One Water approach and invite you to learn more:

1. Community decisions, not utility decisions. A One Water approach asks a community to consider and manage all water 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 impact water should consider all water available in their system and all water needs (alongside one another).

2. Collaboration is the essential building block. Under this current system of management, different streams of water are compartmentalized, managed in almost complete isolation from one another. Collaboration across these silos is critical for making decisions that are truly in the best interest of the community and water resources. Collaboration, however, doesn’t come easily. Often times between disparate audiences, collaboration requires committed leadership, commonsense, political capital, a diversity of participants and institutions, plus 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 and the collaboration it depends upon 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 Mitchell Foundation is committed to supporting Texas’s transition to One Water and sustaining our state’s water resources. With resilient, opportunistic, and determined Texans working together at the local and state level, a true paradigm shift will occur, helping us to sustain our treasured natural resources, from Big Bend to the East Texas Piney Woods.

Please join the foundation and Texas Living Waters Project for a special One Water webinar series this April and May to explore why a One Water approach is right for communities across Texas.


Sarah Richards is the water program officer for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. This post is an excerpt prepared for Texas Living Waters Project from the foundation’s new report, Advancing One Water in Texas


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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