Texas needs innovative water solutions
Susan Combs, For the Express-News : January 24, 2014 : Updated: January 24, 2014 5:35pm
In Texas, the holiday season brought the welcome return of cooler weather, and — in some areas — even more welcome rain. It's easy, on a cool, misty winter day, to forget that we're still locked in an extended drought, the same one that brought the disastrous crop failures and wildfires of 2011.
Unfortunately, we're likely to be reminded of that fact in 2014. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects that spring will see persistent or intensified drought in much of Texas, including the Panhandle and central and southern regions.
Sooner or later, every drought ends. But our growing population and our economic success guarantee that our water problems won't end — unless we take steps to ensure our supplies, and soon. The passage of Proposition 6 in November was an important step in funding our future water needs. But we can do more.
Look at the revolution in Texas energy production due to unconventional drilling techniques — new approaches that have changed the oil patch almost beyond recognition. Where's our revolution in water technology?
A new study from my office, “Texas Water Report: Going Deeper for the Solution,” examines some of the wide-ranging implications of water shortages, including the intricacies of “water politics” between states and nations, and proposes solutions that can help us ensure that clean water keeps flowing to our farmers and ranchers, our power plants, cities and industries.
Many of America's fastest-growing metro areas are located in water-threatened regions. And Texas in particular has much to lose.
According to the reports they provide to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, as of Jan. 8, 29 Texas municipal water systems were in danger of running out of water within three months. Two small communities, Spicewood Beach and Barnhart, have run dry entirely.
If something similar happened to one of our metro areas, the economic damage could be catastrophic, and a University of Florida study ranked San Antonio as the nation's most water-vulnerable city.
Of course, many are grappling with our water problems right now, pioneering new techniques and technologies that can stretch existing water and open up new supplies. The Texas Water Report profiles a number of promising new approaches, including strategies such as water reuse and aquifer storage and recovery. We also examine the rapidly evolving field of desalination, which could allow us to use the ocean of brackish water contained in Texas aquifers.
Nonetheless, much of Texas' planned spending on water is still devoted to traditional approaches —additional reservoirs, stream diversions, water pipelines and conventional conservation methods. They're all worthwhile, but we're going to need new solutions as well.
We're more than overdue for breakthroughs, and some of our state funding should be used to cultivate them. There's a clear need for greater support in this vital field — according to the Higher Education Coordinating Board, in fiscal 2012 our four-year universities spent $519 million on research and development, while our health-related institutions spent another $2.4 billion. Of all that, only $28.7 million went to water-related issues.
In our report, we recommend investments to help us maintain and extend our water supplies, such as a grant program for water authorities and major water users that can achieve significant, verifiable reductions in total usage through conservation.
But we also recommend state funding for innovative demonstration projects in water technology. And we're proposing a prize model to award some of the state's research dollars for specific achievements in innovative water technology.
Choosing the right approach to Texas' water problems may be the most important policy decision we make for the next 50 years. Water can limit our growth — or ensure it continues. It's up to us.
To view Texas Water Report: Going Deeper for the Solution, as well as accompanying web tools and interactive features, visit www.TxWaterReport.org.