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The Coming Crisis Over Water – Texas Tribune Festival panel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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There were a lot of interesting panels and sessions at this weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival. A lot of nuggets of information, some good dialogue back and forth about energy and environmental policy in Texas. The federal government was only brought up about a dozen times. A few those times it was even mentioned in a positive light. Pretty good for the first year of the conference.

Now, writing about these conferences is hard. There are a bunch of different topics, and it’s tempting to just write a summary about every single panel session. Instead of doing that, I’ll direct you to the play-by-play over at the Texas Tribune website. Or my Twitter feed (which was pretty thorough except for the hour that I lost internet access. Blast!).

I will, however, talk about what I thought was the most timely panel: “The Coming Crisis Over Water”. Relevant and timely because Texas is in one of the worst droughts since folks started keeping records. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, “the 11 months from October 2010 through August 2011 have been the driest for that 11-month period in Texas since 1895.” The highland lakes near Austin, a source of recreation to many and drinking water to the city of Austin and is over 40 feet below historical levels. Not good.

And with roughly 25 million residents living in the state, and more coming every day, reliable access to clean water can make or break this state’s economy and way of life. According to panelist Laura Huffman of The Nature Conservancy of Texas, 60 percent of the state’s water is used to grow food. Agricultural economic losses attributed to this year’s drought are estimated at $5.2 billion. That amount will likely increase.

Although based on the behavior of many urban Texans, one would think the drought is more of a minor inconvenience than a genuine Big Deal. Here in Austin, we have entered what’s called a Stage 2 water restriction, which means lawn watering is limited to once per week, and restaurants cannot serve water without asking first. Positive steps, sure, but inadequate to the long-term water resource issues facing this state.

Andrew Sansom, Executive Director the River Systems Institute at Texas State University, offers some insight. He reasons that urbanization has insulated millions of Texans from the severity of the drought. Texas, like the rest of the nation, has undergone a rural to urban transformation over the past several decades. Water and wastewater infrastructure has allowed cities to flourish and weather minor droughts, while the severity of the drought is largely unknown to many city residents.

Mr. Sansom isn’t alone in this thinking. Writing in The Long Summer, author Brian Fagan describes urban centers as ships sailing in the sea. The larger the vessel, the better it is as riding out smaller waves that would disrupt or sink smaller ships. This comes at the cost of taking on vulnerability to even bigger catastrophes. Taking this concept to civilizations, early tribes and societies reasonable small ships and boats – small disruptions in water or a change in climate year to year could be devastating. As people banded together and formed cities, they were able to ride out small changes in rainfall patterns or crop shortages.

The downside is that larger civilizations can’t get up and move easily if water resources run dry, or if crops fail in a given region. In that sense, modern civilization resembles a supertanker more than anything else. Prolonged drought coupled with rapid population growth affect many more people than ever before. It’s one thing if a farmer can’t water his crops, which is a big deal. However, it’s a bigger deal on a different scale if a major metropolitan area can’t guarantee a water supply to millions of residents, high-tech manufacturing fabs, or power plants that rely on water in cooling towers.

So what to do about this? Increased conservation? Develop new water supplies like water desalinization plants? Texas contains abundant saline water resources in aquifers, and the City of El Paso is home to the world’s largest inland desalinization plant. All of these options have tradeoffs, so it’s not easy to say which ones make sense for Texas – or the rest of the country. Desalinization plants require tremendous amounts of energy, and conservation will only go so far.

This November, Texans will have the chance to vote on two water stewardship laws. One of them, Proposition 8, would encourage landowners to conserve water on their property in return for reduced property taxes. According to Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), “this proposition will let owners have their land appraised in much the same way as some owners who receive an agricultural valuation (generally resulting in a lower tax bill). Landowners would receive this valuation if they manage their land in a way that improves water quality and quantity.”

Something needs to happen. Estimates have the Texas population nearly doubling by 2060. 50 million people are going to require a lot of water.

“As with ships, so with civilizations”, Fagan writes. Indeed.

Photo courtesy of the Austin American-Statesman.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. HubertB 5:16 pm 05/24/2012

    Many Texas ranchers sold water rights years ago. Instead of water being reused upstream, it is now piped downstream to other areas. During droughts this makes the problem worse. Thus the sale of water rights has created many square miles of desert.

    Link to this

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