Spotlight: Water in Texas
Adrift at sea, the ancient mariner lamented “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” So, too often, we might say of water in Texas. Our state has vast water resources – rivers, aquifers, seasonal rainfall – yet meeting demands while preserving supply and protecting our natural environment is difficult.
The sparse population of early Texas enjoyed the fresh water surplus of Gulf coast rains and spring-fed rivers. But when the Texas population grew seven-fold between 1870 and 1930, rains and rivers were not enough. Fortunately for Texas, the New Deal of the 1930s brought massive investments in dammed reservoirs, establishing a reliable water supply for the burgeoning population.
The drought prompted legislators to create the Texas Water Development Board (“TWDB”), to plan for water needs and finance water infrastructure projects. One of the Board’s first undertakings was to transition the state from dependence on surface water to ground water, i.e.the state’s bountiful freshwater aquifers. Today, aquifers supply 60% of Texas’s fresh water.
Every five years, the TWDB crafts a “State Water Plan” to ensure Texas has enough water to withstand a recurrence of the 1950s Texas Drought. By all accounts the Board has performed admirably. Nevertheless, there remains significant risk of drought in Texas. Climate change is sure to bring more frequent and severe conditions, like the devastation of Hurricane Harvey or the drought of 2011. Meanwhile, the aquifers on which we have long relied are depleting, endangering not only the aquifers themselves but also our spring-fed rivers. Aquifers and reservoirs simply cannot sustain our growing population and industry.
It’s time again to adapt. Just as past generations of Texans adapted from river water to reservoirs, and from reservoirs to aquifers, we will have to adapt from principle reliance on aquifers to more sustainable means. Technology can help: aquifer storage and recovery (“ASR”) technology can recharge aquifers using excess floodwater overflows, and new and more advanced desalination techniques can turn sea water and brackish groundwater into fresh drinking water. But though promising, desalination and ASR are expensive. The cheapest way to meet water supply demands is to find ways to use less of it. As we search for the right combination of measures, we can expect to see cooperation among environmentalists and industry, which, I think, gives good reason for optimism.