Guest Column: Tackle the Water Crisis

Laura Huffman
Laura Huffman

During the last legislative session here in Texas, about 6,000 bills were filed. Fewer than 1,400 of them were passed. That's a lot of legislative traffic with very low odds of success. So as we head into the next session this January, what issues should Texans ask legislators to prioritize? What are the most important issues facing our state?

Guaranteeing safe, clean and available water supplies should be a top priority. The state's population could swell to nearly 50 million in the next 50 to 60 years. Most statewide growth will be concentrated in our urban areas, where roughly 86 percent of our population currently lives. More people equals more demand for water, energy and food, not to mention the necessary infrastructure and economic development to support such demands.

There is no question that a Texas water shortage will mean a Texas energy shortage and a Texas food production shortage at the very time when demands are increasing. The cost of doing nothing has already been calculated by the state. Failure to address Texas’ water supply needs ultimately means $116 billion in economic losses over the course of the next 50 years. Our success will depend on our ability to optimize the use of water for cities, energy and food. We cannot pit one interest against another here; it won't work. Water is about securing our collective good fortune.

Last year's drought, which cost Texas upwards of $10 billion, provided evidence of what could happen. With so much of our success hinging on water, it simply has to be a legislative priority. While we have a state water plan that attempts to address these issues, it is unfunded and un-prioritized. To fix this, Texas will have to execute an array of strategies and execute them well. Here is where the legislature should start:

Prioritize conservation. By far, our least expensive option is to stretch our water resources further. Overall, water is a fixed asset. The State Water Plan even predicts that existing water supplies are projected to decrease about 10 percent, while 24 percent of our future supply will need to come from conservation. The Legislature should create and pass programs to make sure this important conservation goal is achieved.

Acknowledge the nexus between water and energy. We have a 50-year state water plan but Texas has no energy plan. The Legislature should close this glaring gap in resource planning by creating a component to the water plan that recognizes the practical link between water and energy. One of the most important aspects of energy production is the availability of fresh water, and energy is often the most expensive aspect of water treatment and conveyance.

Recognize private landowners as a solution. More than 95 percent of the land in Texas is privately owned. We should honor this heritage and acknowledge that part of protecting our water quality is working with private landowners to make sure water is protected on the first place rain falls — private land.

Restructure existing state programs. Guaranteeing safe, reliable water resources should involve prioritizing smart strategies and projects. The Legislature should insist on a wholesale realignment of existing water infrastructure programs. Funding should target projects that promote water conservation, regionalization and a minimal environmental footprint.

Dedicate funding for the state water plan. The time has come to guarantee that we will solve our water problems. This will require investment and must involve prioritization. The issue of water is bipartisan and should stay that way. We’re all in this together.

Get serious about how to effectively use brackish water. Texas has about 2.7 billion acre-feet of naturally-occurring brackish groundwater (salty water existing in aquifers and surface waters throughout Texas). This resource could easily become a key to solving some water supply challenges. In fact, it could become the primary source of water for producing natural gas — saving limited freshwater for other critical uses.

There's too much at stake to wait.

Laura Huffman is the State Director for The Nature Conservancy.