Water Program FAQs

Q: What is the water landscape in the state of Texas?

A: At over 268,000 square miles, Texas is big enough to have 15 major river basins, seven major bays and estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico, and four different climatic regions. Texas experiences many of the same challenges of other water-limited western states, especially in the western part of the state that receives less than 10 inches of rain each year. Whereas in the east and near the Gulf, Texas reflects challenges of other Gulf states with average annual precipitation is over 55 inches. Texas weather is also highly variable and prone to extremes - from prolonged droughts to increasingly more severe floods and hurricanes.

Reacting to weather extremes and natural disasters has been the cornerstone of statewide surface water planning.

As a result of the 1950s drought, the State created the first State Water Plan, built a network of reservoirs to store water, and increased groundwater use to mitigate the impacts of drought on water supplies. After the 2011 drought, Texans approved the creation of the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas to provide low-interest loans to implement the State Water Plan. In 2019 as a result of the Memorial Day floods in Central Texas and Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast, the State is creating its first Texas State Flood Plan to move the state towards resilience in the face of catastrophic flooding. The plans have built-in adaptive management principles that allow for modifications as science and predictive modeling improves. 

Groundwater, which accounts for approximately 60% of water used in Texas, however, is not managed by the state.

Although surface water and groundwater are part of an interconnected system, they are treated differently under Texas law. This legal framework is steeped in the nation-building and, later, state-building history of Texas. Hydrologically, groundwater becomes surface water when it emerges above ground through springs and surface water becomes groundwater when the streams and rivers dip below ground to recharge aquifers. Whereas surface water is owned by the state and apportioned through a permit system based on priority rights, groundwater is considered to be private property owned by the surface landowner and typically managed and protected locally through groundwater conservation districts.

This dichotomous system has far-reaching implications for future water sustainability and resilience.

Q: What is the state of Texas’s State Water Plan?

A: The state legislature created the first Texas State Water Plan in response to the 1950s drought, which was the most devastating and prolonged drought recorded in state history. The 1961 plan catapulted Texas into a decade of water engineering, building 2,700 water supply dams.  At the time, Texas was largely rural and the water plan reflected those rural needs. As the state became more urban and water needs became more regionalized, the state responded in 1997 by replacing the state-level planning process with a bottom-up approach.

The State Water Plan is now a system of regional water plans adopted every five years to ensure municipalities, agriculture, and industry have adequate water supplies during times of severe drought for the next 50 years. The current $63 billion plan was approved in 2017. 

The 2017 State Water Plan improves upon the 2012 plan by including drought response, conservation strategies, groundwater availability, existing environmental flow standards, and prioritized projects.

However, the plan could be improved. Notably, the plan does not adequately include future climate change scenarios into its calculus. 

Q: How urgent is Texas’s water problem?

A: Agriculture is the single largest water user in Texas at about 50% of all water used each year. By 2065, municipal water demand will surpass agricultural water demand.  While the population in Texas is expected to increase 70 percent by 2070, statewide water demands are projected to increase by only 17 percent. Projected water demand does not increase at the same rate as population largely due to municipal water conservation and efficiency efforts and decreased agricultural demands.

However, Texas’ existing water supplies, particularly agricultural supplies, are expected to decline by 11 percent by 2070 and, unless recommendations of the plan are implemented, some water users will experience water shortfalls as early as 2020 in times of drought. 

Because so much of the state’s future water security rests on urban conservation and efficiency, one of the Water Program’s major goals centers around exploring and encouraging urban integrated water resources management, or One Water.

Q: Why is the foundation involved in water policy issues?

A: Water is, arguably, the most important long-term issue facing the state of Texas. The foundation asks hard questions and looks for solution-based answers in a non-politically charged environment.

Water issues are controversial, and it is often difficult for policymakers to address the deeply rooted systemic issues, such as

  1. disconnects in policy between groundwater and surface water management;
  2. agricultural inefficiencies;
  3. infrastructure leakage;
  4. trade-offs between the environment and the economy; and
  5. increased competition between water users such as agricultural vs. urban, recreational vs. agricultural, and environmental vs. municipal.

Q: What is unique about the foundation’s Water Program?

A:  Consistent with the sustainability science approach that characterizes the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s grantmaking, the foundation’s Water Program aims to increase the scientific understanding of water issues in Texas, which informs the design of effective policy approaches to ensure that the water quantity needs of the environment are met. The sustainability science framework focuses on moving from knowledge (scientific research) to action (policy design and implementation) by utilizing interdisciplinary, place-based, and adaptive management methods to design the foundation’s program strategy and grantmaking portfolio.

Q: What are the specifics of the foundation’s Water Program?

A:  To address Texas’s water management challenges and ensure adequate water supplies for the environment, the Water Program’s resources support efforts to

  1. define the “grand challenges” of water management and the scientific, policy, and legal investigations necessary to address intractable questions;
  2. increase water conservation in major Texas cities through urban water conservation programs and utility business model reform;
  3. protect water resources in the Texas Hill Country through landowner engagement and a science-based identification of the most critical water resources;
  4. ensure adequate instream flows and freshwater inflows to bays and estuaries through policy and innovative market efforts; and
  5. achieve water and energy savings through in-depth analysis and policy development related to the energy-water nexus.
  6. support work that crosscuts the foundation’s programs. For example, for the past decade the Water and Energy Programs have focused on the water-energy nexus and, more recently, the Water Program has concentrated on a headwaters-to-tidewaters framing along with the Land Program.

Q: What is the role of landowners in protecting water?

A: Approximately 95 percent of the state’s land is privately held. At the same time, Texas leads the nation for fastest-growing cities, with half of the country’s top ten metropolitan areas located in the state.

The implications for the environment and water resources are profound.

Currently 85 percent of Texans live in urban areas and rely on the working farms and ranches of rural Texas to protect water supplies, to protect communities from the impacts of floods, and to protect wildlife habitat and natural ecosystems. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1947, “saving the water and the soil must start where the first rain drop falls”.

And yet, large tracts of agricultural and rural land are lost every year to development and sprawl - particularly in the state’s fastest growing counties with the biggest cities.  As the size of tracts of land in Texas diminishes, wildlife habitat is lost, open space disappears, and, most noteworthy for the future of the state, the function of watersheds - and source drinking water - is irrevocably impaired.

For the most part, rural Texans have deep ties to those natural resources and private landowners steward their lands without any compensation expectations for the benefits they provide the state. Meanwhile, people who live in urban centers are becoming more disconnected from those lands, from understanding where their water comes from, and the role that rural Texas plays in providing vital resources.

The foundation is exploring policies that honor private property rights and will ensure a resilient future Texas. 

© 2012-2021 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.