This commentary originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.
The Texas Comptroller, Susan Combs, recently released the Texas Water Report: Going Deeper for the Solution, which proposes a sort of revolution to solve Texas’ water woes. As Combs notes, Texas is a global energy leader, but the state should be a global water leader too. And her initiative couldn’t come fast enough. Texas, already prone to cycles of drought, is facing new water pressures, including population growth and a changing economy, which only make it harder to preserve our diminishing water supply. To rouse the state’s water recovery plan, the report prioritizes water-saving technological innovations (while stressing the need for conservation) and lauds various Texas cities for water management practices. But the report misses some key elements that are essential to keeping our water flowing. In the same way that new energy technologies have brought us closer to a cleaner, more reliable electric grid, innovations in the water arena can seamlessly reduce our water use and set the state on a sustainable path.
The report says conservation is not enough, and it’s right. However, efficiency is the most significant first step and conservation achieved through technology is a welcome counter to the infrastructure-heavy plans typically heard at the Capitol and in the State Water Plan. (What good is a new reservoir, if there’s no water to put in it?) Some of the technologies evaluated in the report include aquifer storage and recovery, inter-basin transfers, low-water fracking technologies and desalinization – what some call “game changers.” These technologies could potentially relieve our future water woes, but these projects are expensive and don’t alleviate our immediate or even mid-term water stresses.
The report also brings to light that some areas are actually running out of water, showing a sobering graphic of cities in the direst straits, and highlights some examples of what cities are doing to help stave off a water disaster. Naturally, San Antonio, which is at the forefront of water conservation and the energy-water nexus, exhibits some great examples, including adopting higher rates for top water users in the area. Austin also gets a mention for its water reuse programs and, surprisingly, so does California. I say ‘surprisingly’ because California isn’t often seen as an example for Texas to follow, especially considering that its governor declared a drought emergency last week. Maybe this is an indication of just how serious things have gotten.
The solutions in this report are praiseworthy and all recommend for the Texas Legislature to pony-up funds to pay for water efficiency and conservation. Some examples include giving grants to water authorities and major water users to make a meaningful difference in water efficiency and conservation, helping spur technological innovation through demonstration projects, and creating a competitive prize to incent innovative research for universities. I agree with all of these recommendations, but I think the report is missing a few key elements.
Climate change must be part of the conversation.
One topic the report does not talk about is Texas’ history of severe droughts and extreme weather, or how climate change is making those patterns more intense. If we are talking about future water supplies and trying to plan for the increasing demands of this limited resource, we need to talk about climate change. It is no longer an option to conduct long-range planning without using all the available data. It’s time to incorporate energy and water efficiency in preparing for our changing climate.
Energy use should be integrated with water conservation.
Texas is an energy-intensive state (with modest energy efficiency goals), which means the state is automatically water-intensive. After all, energy uses water and water uses energy – the two are inextricably linked. That’s why one of the best ways to bolster our water supply and cut harmful carbon emissions is for water and electricity regulators to plan together. With cooperation and a holistic outlook, state regulators can successfully reduce our reliance on thirsty fossil-fuel electricity while also cutting the state’s overall water consumption.
Behavior, technology, and conservation are all part of the solution.
Just as the report states that conservation can’t solve all of Texas’ water problems, technology can’t either. We must be more efficient and thoughtful in our water use and not rely entirely on technology to dig us out of this hole. There needs to be a mental shift, too. A holistic outlook that integrates behavior, technology, and conservation is what’s needed to set the state on a sustainable path. Elevating Texans’ water IQ through public education and installing smart water meters (to see water-usage data) on homes and businesses are simple measures the state can enact to begin bridging the water- information gap.
For those living in water-stressed areas (and that’s not just Texas and the arid West), it’s important to understand that we all have a role to play when it comes to making Texas a global water leader. But ultimately, if Legislators and key decision-makers don’t take this bull by the horns, Texans will face a very dry future.