Texans must treat every drop of water as precious [OPINION]

Community leaders, water planners, and policymakers need a bold, innovative, commonsensical approach to our traditional water management. 

The state of Texas is a behemoth. At some 268,000 square miles — from the Piney Woods of East Texas, the Hill Country and the Panhandle to the desert mountains of West Texas and the 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 a bold, innovative, yet commonsensical approach to our traditional urban water management.

One Water is 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 — that is, wastewater, stormwater, rainwater and drinking water — are considered resources, valued and put to use.

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 But, much too often, we look to outdated tactics to plan for our future challenges.

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 means less green space 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 hardest hit from 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, or at least until there's a crisis that is bigger than one utility can manage.

Look no further than Austin.

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

Texas' rural, 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 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 down stormwater and reduce pollution entering streams. We can develop 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 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 our antiquated linear and siloed pattern of managing water is now.

Emily Warren is water program officer for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

Radhika Fox is chief executive of the US Water Alliance.

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