Texas Officials Release Water Shortage Plans

Published February 18, 2014

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs released a report urging “game-changing” innovations to state water policies to deal with future water shortages.

“We’re a global leader in energy, and we need to be a global leader in water conservation,” Combs said in a media statement accompanying the release of the report.

Planning for Drought Cycles
Texas Water Report: Going Deeper for the Solution points out Texas has for many centuries experienced cycles of periodic severe drought. The Texas Comptroller’s office hopes its report’s recommendation will allow state officials to maximize water supplies during future droughts.

The report states population growth, agricultural activities, and recent drought conditions are diminishing water resources in the state faster than the water is being replenished.

Encouraging New Technologies
In the report’s introduction, Combs states promising new technologies and programs can help Texans stretch their existing water supplies. Combs also champions saltwater desalination, which offers the promise of essentially limitless supplies of fresh water but at significantly higher prices than existing water supplies.

“In many ways, the outlook concerning fresh water could mirror what has happened for oil, another finite resource,” the report states. “Oil markets have been upended in the last few years by vast new supplies brought to market by the application of new technologies, in this case the use of increasingly sophisticated horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques.

“And just as importantly,” the report adds, “the rapidly evolving technologies of desalination, water reuse and aquifer storage and recovery may provide us with new supplies of fresh water from either wastewater or vast reserves of brackish (salty) water in Texas aquifers.”

Texas is experiencing a third consecutive year of drought, and reservoirs are only 65 percent full, the lowest since 1990. The report notes the problem will be exacerbated by the state’s expected population increase from 25 million to 46 million by 2060.

The researchers recommend a $25 million state grant program to encourage conservation by local water utilities. They also propose a five-year, $25 million prize program to reward those who develop new, inexpensive sources of drinking water.

Importance of Water Reliability
John Dunn, a Texas physician, lawyer, and policy adviser for The Heartland Institute, says it is important to talk about water development for Texas because of the growth in the economy and population. As the state further increases its economic development and more people are attracted to Texas for jobs, the state is going to need to develop more water resources in order to keep up with demand.

“To put this issue in perspective, Texas has about the same size population as Canada, but nowhere near the amount of lakes and streams. You look at the map of Canada, and that nation looks like it’s a giant water park. If Texas had the water resources that Canada does, the state would not have any water shortage issues,” said Dunn.

Texas Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) told Environment & Climate News it is important for Texas officials to ensure water resources do not come up dry. King said as Texas recruits businesses to relocate there, the businesses want to know if the state can meet their water needs.

“They now want to know if you have a water plan in place, because if you’re going to build a $50 million manufacturing plant, people want to know if they’re going to have enough water to carry them 50 years down the road,” said King.

Markets Encourage Reliability, Conservation
H. Sterling Burnett, an independent environmental economist based in Dallas, Texas, says establishing water markets is a less expensive but more reliable way of ensuring abundant future water supplies. For water markets to work, however, property rights must be established, Burnett said.

“As in a lot of places, agriculture is the big user of water in the state of Texas,” said Burnett. “In the past, the water belonged to the farmers and ranchers whose land it was on or under. They could use as much as they wanted, so they had use rights, but they did not have water rights—’use it or lose it’ was the rule. As cities such as Austin and San Antonio have grown, their need for water for millions of people is increasingly conflicting with farmers’ historic uses.

“We should strengthen the water rights of farmers by taking an average of the two highest usage years over the past 10 years and say, ‘You have rights to this much water annually and it’s yours to use, withdraw, leave in the aquifer, or sell it to the highest bidder'” Burnett explained.

“This doesn’t require any expensive, big-government solution—no new dams, reservoirs, or creating water districts that will be managed by political appointees,” Burnett observed. 

Josiah Neeley, a policy analyst at the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says there’s no single solution, such as conservation of water, that will solve this problem. Instead, he recommends eliminating or amending state and federal regulations that prevent effective water resource development. For example, the rules governing inter-basin transfers could be made less onerous, and those covering junior rights for groundwater could be repealed, which would result in more ground water transfers.

“We just need to apply good science and common sense to our laws,” said Neeley.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.

Internet Info:

Texas Water Report: Going Deeper for the Solution, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Jan. 2014, http://heartland.org/sites/default/files/tx_water_report_0.pdf