Texas needs to plan better for droughts, including exploring the expensive process of desalination, experts testified Thursday in Austin before a receptive House Natural Resources Committee.
"This is the biggest threat we have to our economy right now," said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking about water supplies. In 2011, he added, "the bell went off, and either we're going to do something or we're not."
Ken Kramer, the head of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that as a first priority, Texans need to "maximize effective use of existing resources," including some tougher watering restrictions. The city of Corpus Christi, he said, does not have mandatory watering restrictions even when lakes drop below 50 percent full.
Larson said that he had recently visited El Paso and been impressed by the year-round restrictions there. "I think the best water management practice is to always restrict the use of outdoor watering," Larson said, adding: "I guarantee you, San Antonio should do that, and other communities as well."
Kramer noted that another concern was that communities in the same area sometimes did not implement uniform watering restrictions. For example, he said, Houston has had watering restrictions but some suburbs — which draw from the same water supply — did not.
"It's definitely an issue we're going to be dealing with," responded State Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee.
The committee also explored the pros and cons of desalination, an option that involves taking the salt out of seawater or brackish underground water. This is expensive because of the large amount of energy needed in desalination plants, but it's getting more attention across the state, given the strain on surface water supplies during the drought.
Becky Motal, the general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, said it was an option worth considering. "With low energy prices right now, I think it's something that all water providers at least need to be looking at as well," she said.
Many utilities are looking to Australia for examples; one expert testified that after being plagued by drought, Australia had added desalination infrastructure in little more than a decade.
El Paso is a more local example. Years ago it built what Hector Gonzalez, the government affairs manager for the El Paso Water Utility, testified is the "largest inland desalination plant in the world." Gonzalez said that the city hopes to expand its desalination capabilities over the next few decades. El Paso is in an especially dry area in the state, and "We're going to learn a lot from y'all's trials and tribulations," Ritter said.
State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, said that Texas needs to wake up to the "importance of infrastructure" for water. An example, he said, is that after the prolonged drought of the 1950s — still considered worse, if less intense, than the current drought — planners built large numbers of reservoirs. Come January, Keffer said, lawmakers need to be "ready to attack this and be ready to do the work that we need to do for the future of our state," he said.
As for the current drought, figures updated Thursday show that it still covers 90 percent of the state, with parts of West and South Texas still particularly hard-hit. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is no longer in drought.
At the hearing, state Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said that central and eastern parts of the state had received significant rainfall, "and as a consequence of that, we can no longer talk about the Texas drought as one entity," he said.
As for the summer and fall, current predictions foresee equal chances of above- and below-normal rainfall, Nielsen-Gammon said. But there is "a slight tilt toward warmer-than-average temperatures, which would mean evaporation," he said.
Holly Heinrich contributed to this report.