Checking in: The state of Texas water

Photo by Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

Drought and water shortage aren’t really top of mind in the midst of hurricanes and heavy rainfall, but the truth is Texas might just have gotten off by the skin of its teeth this year. 

Even during this rainy season, parts of the Texas Panhandle are in extreme drought, and ranchers are contending with crop failure and forced to sell off livestock. The water crisis is ever-present, and water is a limited resource — while it might make up 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, the majority of that is salty or locked in ice. We’re counting on about 1 percent of our water supply to sustain the entire planet. There’s urgency here, but also room for innovation and smart investments in conservation strategies that will help us use less water and use it efficiently.

During last month’s Texas Tribune Festival, I participated in a panel discussion with former Texas Water Development Board chairmen Carlos Rubenstein and Bech Bruun, as well as current board member Kathleen Jackson, to talk about the state of the state’s water supply. A few big themes emerged from the conversation:

  1. It’s time to diversify our water strategies. Water isn’t a single issue; it touches every facet of modern life: food and energy production, wildlife and habitat preservation, the health of our bays and estuaries, and the overall well-being and prosperity of our communities. It makes sense, then, to broaden our strategies, encouraging innovation and exploring new ideas. We know that conserving water and changing the way we use it is the cheapest and most efficient way to protect our supplies. We can complement conservation strategies like fixing leaky pipes and lining agricultural canals with creative solutions—programs that reward utilities with low use and water loss percentages, for example. Tapping alternative supplies through reuse, recycling and brackish water desalination pose interesting options, as well. Diversification and innovation can help enhance the efficiency of water management, promote a more competitive market and provide more sustainable water resources for future generations.
  2. We can do more for the environment. The State Water Plan puts Texas ahead of the curve for most states when it comes to planning for water, even setting a goal of 28 percent of future water supplies to come from conservation. But there was agreement across last month’s panel on one key issue: more needs to be done to preserve the state’s natural resources, which safeguard the water supply that serves as the lifeblood of our state. In the face of a rising population, expanding cities and more severe and frequent droughts and floods, more can be done with more innovation. As Texas grows and develops, we’ll see a shift in categorical water users away from agriculture and toward cities. Increasing awareness as to the value of water — for the economy as well as the environment — can help us normalize conservation as a water strategy, protecting and restoring environmental flows while supporting economy and industry. 
  3. Local voices matter. Just as the water plan takes a bottom-up approach, so does its implementation. Good water management is grounded in science, and it’s up to us to make our voices heard in support of more funding to update water models and better understand things like groundwater and environmental flows. That was the resounding message that wrapped up our panel: Change starts with the individual, and we should all feel empowered to take a stand, call our legislators and make water matter. Water ensures our future, and that’s something we all have a stake in.

It’s easy to think that water comes straight from the sink and that it’ll keep flowing well into the future. But as Jackson so aptly noted at last month’s panel, 1,000 to 1,200 people are moving to Texas each day — and none of them are bringing water with them. That means we all have an interest in brainstorming workable, long-term solutions, and creative conservation strategies can provide benefits across the board. They’ll help Texas keep pace with a ballooning population and growing cities—and allow that bold, innovative Lone Star spirit we’re known for continue to shine.

Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy 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.

Laura Huffman

Texas director, The Nature Conservancy