Securing Texas’ water future, one lawn at a time

Photo by Maggie Osterberg

Texas’ frequent and inescapable droughts haven’t seemed to slow its growth. As people flock to our state, it follows that more of our limited water will be used on lawns. Studies have found that homeowners tend to overwater their lawns by two to three times the needed amount, which means much of this water will be wasted. With Texas’ rising growth and increasing uncertainty in our rainfall patterns, it’s clear that we need to be thinking proactively about our water resources.

Water conservation is especially relevant as we see large cities like Cape Town, South Africa in the news for coming close to running out of water. Here in Texas, the 2011 drought was a reminder to everyone that water should not be taken for granted. To ensure that we have enough water for our growing cities, environment, agriculture and industry, we need to turn to the most cost-effective water management strategy available: conservation. As we search for conservation strategies with the greatest savings potential, we should look to our lawns.

The amount of water that single-family households in Texas currently use to water their yards could fill 590,000 football fields with one foot of water. This presents a big opportunity to save water; one promising way to achieve those savings is through ordinances that limit outdoor irrigation to no more than twice per week.

In fact, in our recently-released report, Water Conservation by the Yard, the Texas Living Waters Project found that Texas could cut its total municipal water use by almost 9 percent if its municipalities adopted these year-round outdoor watering restrictions. Year-round outdoor watering limitations are not a new concept; many cities across Texas, such as Lubbock, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and Frisco have already adopted this strategy, and the rest of Texas can follow their lead.

As we analyzed municipal water data to determine potential outdoor watering savings across the state’s water planning regions, we found that Texas could cut nearly 17 percent from current single-family residential water use by adopting outdoor watering ordinances that include robust education and enforcement components.

The ways in which cities use water directly impact the health of the lakes, rivers and bays that provide us with economic, social and environmental benefits. When cities implement ordinances that limit outdoor watering to no more than twice per week, they leave more water to flow in our rivers and creeks. This water eventually makes its way to the coast, providing bays and estuaries with crucial freshwater and nutrients. All of this supplies Texas’ fish and wildlife with a place to call home.

Texas’ water planning process forecasts water demand and need for the 2020, 2040 and 2070 planning horizons. Based on the 2017 State Water Plan, the municipal water savings made possible by implementing this single water conservation strategy would mean:

  • In 2020, limiting outdoor watering would meet between 43 percent and 91 percent of Texas’ municipal water needs;
  • In 2040, it would meet between 18 percent and 36 percent of municipal water needs; and
  • In 2070, it would meet between 11 percent and 22 percent of municipal water needs.

We need to act now to be prepared for the next drought — starting with putting less water on Texas lawns every day, not just during drought. This strategy’s cost-effectiveness and ease of implementation should make it a no-brainer for municipalities. The conserved water could be used to meet our current and future water demands, and savings from this water conservation measure alone would satisfy a significant portion of projected municipal water needs.

Broad-scale adoption of outdoor watering ordinances could easily be considered a win-win-win, addressing landscape watering needs, the needs of cities and urban areas and the needs of the natural environment to sustain wildlife.

The Texas Living Waters Project has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Jennifer Walker

Senior program manager, National Wildlife Federation

Ruthie Redmond

Water resources program manager, Sierra Club-Lone Star Chapter