The need for One Water

Only six months ago, the state of Texas experienced the most significant rain event in its recordable history (Hurricane Harvey). So, many may find it hard to believe that today a majority of Texas is in a state of drought

For Texans, a boom-and-bust water cycle is no stranger; however, thanks to global warming, these extremes are becoming, well, more extreme. And that’s taking a severe toll on our water supply.

Flooding during Harvey overwhelmed sewage systems, toxic waste dumps, landfills, and much of the general infrastructure of the greater Houston area. The rains unleashed a noxious soup of floodwaters that sickened people and sea life that, according to the National Hurricane Center, caused $125 billion in damage. 

At the opposite extreme, the drought of 2011 caused some Texas towns to run out of water. The water levels of the Brazos River were so low that scientists had to collect rare smalleye shiners and sharpnose shiners, essential minnows at the bottom of the food chain, to protect the fish from extinction.

The Pennybacker Bridge in Austin is a through-arch bridge across Lake Austin which connects the northern and southern sections of the Loop 360 highway.

The Pennybacker Bridge in Austin is a through-arch bridge across Lake Austin which connects the northern and southern sections of the Loop 360 highway.

Rain or shine—floods or drought—too much of our water is polluted.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 9,400 miles of Texas’s rivers and streams, as well as 637,000 acres of our lakes, are simply too polluted for swimming or fishing.

With the state’s population growing dramatically (Texas’s population increased 400,000 people in 2017 alone), these problems will only get worse if we don’t make major changes.

Demand for electricity will rise, with coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants consuming vast volumes of water for cooling. Demand for water will increase, which could further deplete aquifers, rivers, and lakes. And, as demand for land rises, more of the prairies and wetlands (which help protect us from flooding and water pollution) will be paved over. 

Texans—consumers, businesses, utilities, municipalities, activists, and policy-makers—need to change the way (we) think about, approach, and care for Texas waters.  This shift is a necessity if we are to keep our natural waters healthy for wildlife and safe for swimming, make sure we have enough drinking water to meet our future needs; and mitigate the consequences of future floods.

With municipal demand for water expected to increase more than any other category in the next fifty years, there’s no better place to start than in our cities.

As the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s Advancing One Water in Texas report details, one key solution is integrated urban water management, aka One Water. This solution “requires thinking of water as a single system and recognizing that all urban water flows—including stormwater, rainwater, and wastewater—are potentially useful resources.”

In short, we need more water conservation, water efficiency and reuse, green infrastructure, and protection of our rivers and aquifers.

In Austin, we’re already getting started on steps toward a One Water solution. The city has two processes taking place simultaneously.

The first is the Austin’s Water Forward effort, which is developing a plan for how the city will meet its water needs over the next 100 years, including a focused look at One Water strategies such as rainwater harvesting, greywater capture, and reusing wastewater.

The second is the CodeNext process, the city's first major rewrite of its land development rules in more than thirty years. The new code will promote growth patterns designed to help protect urban watersheds, including allowing the development of more multi-family properties. 

Austin Water estimates multi-family properties use just two-thirds of the water compared to that of an average single-family household. That’s why allowing more multi-family properties will produce a significant water conservation benefit. The result? Cleaner water, healthier aquatic environments, and a more reliable water supply.

At the same time, the code will require a massive boost in the use of green stormwater infrastructure in commercial and multi-family properties. Not only will new and redeveloped projects reduce stormwater pollution and flooding, but also they’ll have a source of water to use for irrigating landscaping (rather than, as the Mitchell Foundation’s Sarah Richards puts it, “feeding vast Texas lawns with water so pure a newborn baby could drink it”).

Changing our approach to water won’t be easy in Austin. Institutional inertia, bifurcated bureaucracy, and the city budget's dependency on revenues from water can create internal opposition to change. And, external opposition can arise in the form of resistance to water conservation measures. The Austin Water Utility has estimated that 60 percent of demand-side options for new water supplies face either “internal challenges” or “public/developer opposition.”

All one must do is look to Cape Town, South Africa to view one possible dystopian Texas future—and it’s not pretty.  A One Water future will certainly look different from today, including fewer lawns and more rain cisterns. However, this approach will undoubtedly afford us enough water to live and flourish, and it will support the health of the rivers and aquifers of our boom-bust state.  

We can’t control the weather. We can, however, make the best use of our most precious resource, water.  


Luke Metzger is the founding director of Environment Texas, a statewide, citizen-funded advocate for clean air, clean water, and open spaces. He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside. Luke studied political science and theater at the University of Southern California. Follow Luke on Twitter @LukeMetzger.


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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