Water Conservation

dry cracked soil due to drought in Texas

Population Growth, Drought and Climate Change are Straining Texas' Water Resources

Texas is fortunate to have a rich aquatic heritage, with nine major aquifers, fifteen major rivers, over 200 reservoirs, and some 3700 streams. In addition, more than 300 miles of coastal waters provide habitat for countless species, offer recreational opportunities for Texans and visitors alike, and provide a multi-billion dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry.

However, these resources cannot be taken for granted. Texas' population is projected in double by 2060, with most newcomers settling in urban areas in eastern portions of the state. Thirsty cities are drawing more water from rivers and returning less, threatening the viability of downstream users, wildlife habitat and coastal estuaries. Sprawl development in urban areas is polluting groundwater, above all in Central Texas. Unchecked growth in coastal areas is leading to the loss of crucial wetlands, a trend worsened by the Bush administration's refusal to protect these sensitive water bodies as the federal Clean Water Act requires. Texas counties currently lack the authority to manage growth outside the jurisdiction of cities.

State planning refuses to consider the impacts of climate change on future water supply

The Water for Texas 2007 Plan, approved by the state Water Development Board, states point-blank: "When considering the uncertainties of population and water demand projections, the effect of climate change on the state's water resources over the next 50 years is probably small enough that it is unnecessary to plan for it specifically." The denial of the effects of global warming by Texas' top water planners mirrors the views of the state's current political leadership. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick have all publicly expressed doubt about climate change.

This perspective flies in the face of what the overwhelming majority of the scientific community believes. In early 2007, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change released a report that leaves no doubt that global warming is real and largely attributable to the burning of fossil fuels. A number of Texas climate scientists, such as Eric Barron, dean of Jackson School of Geosciences at UT Austin, insist that global warming presents the greatest threat to the state's water resources.

Increasing temperatures are likely to lead to decreases in rainfall for most of the state and certain to lead to more loss of surface water to evaporation. Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech University geoscientist, estimates that Texas can expect the state's winters to warm between 2 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and summers between 4 and 11 degrees, by 2050. As temperatures continue rising throughout the century, rainfall will have to increase 25 percent to 40 percent by 2060 to maintain current water volumes in the state's rivers and lakes, according to Gerald North, professor of geosciences at Texas A&M University. Such increases in rainfall are not likely.

Water conservation is necessary and achievable

State water planning does recognize the need to conserve water and has set a goal of lowering overall per capita water consumption to 140 gallons per person per day by 2060. However, this is only a goal and not a requirement, and few cities are putting plans in place to reach it. Most cities in Texas are projecting modest decreases at best, and some even project increases in per-capita water use. Few cities in Texas offer incentives such as price structures that reward conservation, and rebates for drought-resistant landscaping or the installation of water-saving devises such as low-flush toilets, rainwater collection barrels, and low-flow shower heads.

El Paso and San Antonio have demonstrated that comprehensive planning to reduce water use can succeed. San Antonio lowered per-capita consumption from 160 gallons per day in 1993 to 135 gpd in 2006. Austin has recently embraced a more modest plan. On the other extreme, Dallas residents consume an average of 240 gpd, and so far that city has not embraced water conservation.

Conserving Water Also Conserves Energy: the Water-Energy Nexus.

While renewable energy sources such as wind and solar consume little or no water, conventional sources of energy use vast amounts. Coal-fired, natural-gas and nuclear power plants all heat water to turn turbines that produce electricity. According the federal Sandia National Laboratories, each kilowatt-hour generated from coal requires 25 gallons of water. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, about a fifth of water drawn from the Colorado from Austin to Matagorda is used by power plants. Not only does renewable energy use far less water; coal-burning power plants are the leading contributor to climate change which in turn leads to diminished rainfall and greater loss of surface water to evaporation.

A tremendous amount of energy is also required to treat and pump water for drinking and irrigation. According to the U.S. Department of Energy about 4 percent of the nation's electricity is used for this purpose.

Towards sustainable water policies

We are working in local communities and at the state level on behalf of sustainable water policies that protect drinking water at its source, preserve wetlands and aquifer recharge zones, and conserve water for the future. We are working to persuade policy makers to prioritize conservation above expensive new reservoirs and treatment plants—a policy that would also save the energy needed to treat and distribute this water. We are advocating a revision to the state's ‘right of capture' doctrine that allows most landowners to pump and sell as much groundwater that lies beneath their property as they wish. We are working with our coalition partners to persuade the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to enforce existing laws and punish polluters with fines high enough to discourage future toxic discharges into our water and air. Not least, we are working to persuade state policy makers to take global warming into account when projecting future water needs and availability.