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In North Texas, Struggle to Conserve Water and Prepare for Growth

Building the reservoirs and pipelines to keep up with the Dallas-Fort Worth region's surging population growth will cost billions of dollars. But environmentalists say conservation must come first.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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*Correction appended

DALLAS — On the northern edge of the city limits, where residents have been subject to watering restrictions for more than a year, a cozy home on less than half an acre has one of the greenest lawns around.

The house is the first in Dallas to receive the Environmental Protection Agency’s “WaterSense” label, the agency’s stamp of approval for water efficiency. It is also the only such home in the country that is open to the public for tours and demonstrations. And the Dallas-Fort Worth region — one of the country’s fastest-growing and thirstiest — may be the most fitting location.

In a place where green lawns decked with water-sucking plants like St. Augustine grass and holly bushes are a status symbol, Dotty Woodson, a water resource specialist with Texas A&M University System’s agriculture education arm, said visitors are amazed to learn that the home’s lush zoysia palisades grass only needs watering once a week in the summertime.
“The first thing they say is, ‘Well gosh, here it is August and look at how much we have in bloom!’” she said.

But such outreach programs have yet to make a sizeable dent in the high household water consumption in North Texas. Environmentalists argue that the region must do more to conserve water before spending the proposed tens of billions of dollars needed to build costly new reservoirs or pipelines.

“Really, it’s a matter of ethics and attitude,” said Mary Kelly, a principal at the Austin environmental analysis firm Parula. “Can we keep taking water somewhere else if we’re not conserving as much as we should?”

North Texas officials object strongly to the “water hog” label that is often applied to the region, pointing out that the Dallas-Fort Worth area houses a quarter of the state’s population and is a major corporate and industrial center.

“We’ve got more restaurants per capita than the other big cities,” said Denis Qualls, a planner for Dallas’ water utility service. “We’ve got more industry, more hotel rooms. It’s a huge, huge economic engine for the state, and to support that, there has to be adequate water supply.”

Still, even the region’s purely residential suburbs are among the state’s biggest water users, with mega-mansions that can drain more than 1,000 gallons per day on average. Critics say a flurry of reservoir-building in the region decades ago created a perception of cheap, unlimited water supplies that drove wasteful habits — a myth that is finally beginning to unravel in the face of unprecedented drought, aging infrastructure and exponential population growth.

So far, the search for the source of 520 billion additional gallons of water per year — the extra water demand North Texas planners say they will have by 2060 — has come up short. The billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ plan to sell water to Dallas from the Texas Panhandle fizzled, and he found customers elsewhere. Concerns over wildlife habitats derailed plans for a massive reservoir in East Texas. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down North Texas’ attempt to buy water from Oklahoma reservoirs after that state resisted. The next big idea — the proposed $3.4 billion Marvin Nichols reservoir — has met fierce opposition from rural communities in Northeast Texas that would lose around 70,000 acres to the lake, including farms, forest and wildlife habitat. 

All of this has left critics asking: Will the region finally get serious about conserving water, or will it simply build its way out of the problem?

Local government leaders say a little bit of both is required, and that they are trying to strike the right balance.

“You’ll never eliminate the need for a major water supply for the Metroplex,” said David Marshall, the engineering services director for the Tarrant Regional Water District, a wholesale supplier to dozens of North Texas entities including the city of Fort Worth. But through conservation, he said, “we’ll definitely delay it. The conservation has really exceeded my expectations.”

As with the rest of the state, North Texas has focused its conservation efforts on landscaping, using big-budget advertising campaigns and replacement programs for appliances and lawn-watering equipment. The results are notable: the Tarrant Regional Water District says its customers have saved 72.3 billion gallons since 2007, which would support five years of population growth. Dallas and Fort Worth say their homes and businesses use 10 percent less water than they did a decade ago.

But the region only started water conservation efforts in earnest in 2000, long after cities like San Antonio, which has managed to cut its water demand dramatically while its population grows.

Ron Kaiser, a professor at Texas A&M University, said North Texas could probably come very close to eliminating the need for projects like Marvin Nichols through conservation. “But that will require fundamental changes in attitudes and policy and land use,” he said. “And those things don’t happen overnight. It’s small and incremental.”

Change has been happening, albeit slowly. After much debate last year, Dallas restricted lawn-watering to twice a week year-round, rather than limiting it to drought conditions. Fort Worth hopes to do the same by next year. But in contrast with areas stricken with more severe drought, North Texas cities are hesitant to enforce restrictions. Dallas fined only 11 water users for violations in the past two years, according to its water utility.

“A great deal of what they spend is on flyers,” as opposed to real investment in conservation strategies, said Kenneth Cook, whose company, Banyan Water, works with Texas commercial property owners to reduce their water consumption. He said his clients in North Texas regularly flout the restrictions and have no incentive to conserve.

“It’s less than 1 percent of their operating costs, so what the heck?” Cook said.

In the meantime, officials say they have plenty of water to sustain growth in the coming decades. But the long-term path is less clear. The Tarrant Regional Water District spent $6 million suing Oklahoma for water and says the Supreme Court defeat leaves it with enough supply to reach 2040.

Many suburban and exurban developers enjoying booming business outside the central cities are choosing to depend on their own water supplies, rather than on distant public promises.

Just a few miles north of the WaterSense house, a residential, retail and office development called Austin Ranch nourishes much of its dozens of acres of landscaping with treated groundwater and stormwater. The wells cost $500,000 each.

It was worth it, said Cook, whose company provides services for the development. “Nobody’s going to call them and say, ‘You can only water on Wednesdays and Fridays.’” 

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the price of the wells for Austin Ranch.

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