The Credible Case for One Water [Opinion]

The state of Texas is a behemoth. At some 268,820 square miles — from the Piney Woods of East Texas, the Texas Hill Country and the Texas Panhandle to the desert mountains of West Texas and the Texas Gulf Coast — the Lone Star State encompasses disparate climate regions, each with varied economic, social and environmental drivers. 

As climate change continues, each of these areas will change. As a general rule, scientists predict a significantly warmer and drier climate — with occasional catastrophic flooding. And water, which is the lifeblood of, well, pretty much everything, is at stake. 

It’s time for collaborative, comprehensive action: community leaders, water planners and policymakers need to make happen a bold, innovative, yet commonsensical approach to our traditional urban water management.

Enter “One Water,” a more resilient, sustainable strategy, sometimes referred to as integrated water management. 

One Water considers the urban water cycle as a single integrated system, where all urban water flows are recognized as potential resources. This unconventional approach is practiced through the inclusive and jointly planned control of all water systems — where all waters (e.g., wastewater, stormwater, rainwater, drinking water) are considered resources and are valued and put to use.  

Texans have done an excellent job of reacting to weather crises, coalescing around major problems and affecting change out of necessity. But much too often, we look to outdated tactics to plan for our future challenges.  

That’s why Austin will host more than 1,000 water leaders this week for the One Water Summit. Water’s brightest leaders from around the country will map out plans for a more secure, sustainable future in the United States. 

Texas is a microcosm of water issues nationally. With 85%of its population living in metropolitan areas, Texas continues to urbanize, which creates common but severe water challenges. More buildings and roads mean there is less greenspace to absorb water runoff, increasing flash flooding. Rain sweeps pollutants from parking lots and turf into river systems. Irrigated landscapes use significantly more water during summer months, drawing down water supplies. And people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately exposed to the impacts of extreme weather events.

Water utilities have become efficient in delivering and treating water, even when people rarely think about how they get their water or what happens as it cycles through our environment. When it’s out of sight, it’s also out of mind — at least until there’s a crisis bigger than one utility can manage. 

One needs to look no further than Austin. 

In 2018, after one of the wettest months on record, floodwater from the mostly rural Llano River overwhelmed Austin’s water filtration system, causing three treatment plants to fill with sludge, silt, and debris. That led to the city’s first boil-water notice in 100 years. 

Texas’ vast swaths of rural, mostly private lands and sensitive environmental areas aren’t immune either. The division between growing urban needs and dwindling rural water supplies has too often forced our state leaders to choose between who gets water and who doesn’t. Upstream users clash with downstream agriculture, water-reliant businesses and coastal fisheries. Advocates are divided into camps, pitting environmental interests against community needs and rural interests against urban needs.

Everyone has a stake in water, and it’s time to break these historical divisions and create a new water paradigm. 

A One Water approach will slow stormwater and reduce pollution entering streams. We can develop more green space to allow more water to seep into the ground, especially in sensitive groundwater areas. We can capture wastewater, clean it and use it again productively. We can identify creative uses for rainwater and air-conditioner condensate, and reduced stress on rural freshwater. Urban centers can share financial incentives upstream that improve outcomes for agriculture and water. 

Leaders across the globe have been working to promote One Water. But communities have been slow to embrace these approaches consistently, particularly at a city or regional scale.

That said, there is progress. El Paso and San Antonio have set the gold standard nationally in urban water conservation. Last year, Austin adopted Water Forward, a 100-year plan that was the first of its kind and integrated all water sources and new technologies to be both flood and drought resilient. This summer, the small town of Wimberley broke ground on the first One Water school in Texas. 

These examples, however, (and please pardon the pun) are just a drop in the bucket. 

The One Water approach is about appreciating the value of every drop of water. Rain, drinking water, wastewater, recycled water, groundwater, storm runoff — every drop, at every stage of the water life cycle, needs to be valued and managed holistically and sustainably. Doing so will build strong economies, vibrant communities and healthy environments.

The time to attack the status quo — our antiquated linear and siloed pattern of how we think of and manage water — is now.

Emily Warren is water program officer for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, which supports high-impact projects and practices at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy.

Radhika Fox is the chief executive officer of the US Water Alliance, a national nonprofit organization advancing policies and programs that build a sustainable water future for all. 

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