It is no secret that more Texans are moving to urban areas. More people mean more water demands. More water demand means more infrastructure and all of this requires more money. It doesn't help that all of this increased demand is taking place during a serious drought, forcing city and state governments to explore new solutions. The good news is that most large Texas cities are not located in a desert like Las Vegas or Phoenix, at least not yet. That aside, the current crisis necessitates action and that seems to be starting.
What to Do?
A couple of weeks ago, Texas lawmakers on the House Natural Resources Committee came together to talk water. One of the interesting aspects of the hearing was the focus on the need for water to preserve our economy. Water is often discussed from an environmental or even personal lifestyle perspective, but it is also a critical part of Texas industry. In many ways, Texas has weathered the national economic turmoil fairly well. This cannot continue without sustainable water resources. Cities can't grow and industry can't run. Unfortunately, even within this reality some Texas cities, such as Corpus Christi, seem to be ignoring this harsh reality.
On the other hand, the DFW area, often vilified for its water usage, is seeking to make twice-a-week watering restrictions a permanent way of life for local citizens thanks to the banding together of four North Texas city mayors. Whether or not this particular rule is the key to all the metroplex problems, this move towards a regional approach is most certainly a huge improvement. As we all know, water doesn't respect physical boundaries so group planning in an important part of any water solution, particularly in areas where people work in one area and live in another. Unified metroplex rules can solve many points of confusion that might arise.
Austin is also discussing new approaches to watering and restrictions. Often, strict watering restrictions don't take nature into account. It can be perfectly legal to water the day after (or during) a rainstorm even if it isn't logical. The real key to efficient watering is a combination of when and how much. Austin is considering a pilot project that gives discretion to users regarding when they water as long as they don't exceed a monthly water budget. Smarter technologies may be a key to helping the ground "decide" when some water is needed and when it isn't.
The Natural Resources Committee hearing also turned to infrastructure and technology. The perceived silver bullet of desalination was again raised with references to what has been done in Australia. It is important to note that the use of increased technology in Australia was paired with customer behavior changes. Conservation in all aspects of life was a critical component of the overall water plan. That being said, infrastructure is an important aspect of sustainability.
Who Should Supply Water?
Interestingly the gap between need and supply has created an opportunity for private companies to replace local agencies as water providers. Traditionally, water supply and infrastructure has been the exclusive purview of the municipal provider, but as city to-do lists get longer, they are more willing to contract out the work. The basic reasoning is that a private company has a financial incentive to replace old, leaking infrastructure because lost product means lost revenue. Many criticize this shift because it changes a public service to a private, money-making enterprise and is seen as the commoditization of water, which should be a public good. Unfortunately, a frequent side effect of privitization is exorbitant increases in water bills. After all, these companies are here to make a profit. On the other side of the coin, many cities simply do not have the revenue to replace pipes responsible for thousands of gallons of leaking water.
In some ways, it is hard to argue against paying higher prices for water. Many feel that we don't pay what water is worth; however, commoditizing water can be a dangerous game. If cities are going to contract with companies, a balance must be struck. Water is necessary for life so no one should be priced out of the market for their basic water needs. High, punitive pricing should be reserved for large, discretionary users who may decide the price of a large lawn is worth it. Additional issues arise if users in comparable urban areas are paying significantly different rates simply because of a local government choice. If privitization is going to be continuing trend, state legislators need to consider putting some basic rules in place to limit what people can be forced to pay, particularly for basic amounts as well as other limitations on corporate actions as they affect water supply.
It isn't news that there isn't one answer to this issue. Group efforts with diverse approaches are necessary, but it's good to see some important conversations taking place. We will keep letting you know what we hear.