With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Jordan Furnans is a senior water resources engineer with INTERA and has been working to manage Texas water resources for 14 years. He holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a BSE in civil and geological engineering from Princeton University. Furnans’ professional experience includes field hydrologic data collection and the analysis of data through the development and application of numerical models. He specializes in the areas of surface water planning, water availability modeling, water right accounting and environmental flow requirements for ecosystem health.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: To start, just tell me a little bit about what you do. How would you explain water availability modeling to a layman?
Jordan Furnans: What I do is I work to quantify how much water is in the streams and in aquifers and available for human use and ecological use. I check to see that those quantities match with what users of the water need and where they need it and when they need it. Water availability modeling, which is my specialty, is specifically a mathematical way for taking the water that we have and distributing it among the various entities that need it.
Trib+Water: So how does water modeling fit into the development of the state’s long-term water plan?
Furnans: What the state does is it looks at population projections and then it calculates how much each of the people they expect to be living in Texas in the various regions, how much water they’re going to use on a daily basis. Then it … calculates the total amount of water that they need. And then they decide, well, we now know how much we need and we use our modeling to determine how much water we’re likely to have at that point in time and at that location. And if those two numbers don’t match, we need to come up with a water supply strategy to make the supplies meet the needs. So, water availability modeling is essential for the way Texas currently does its state water planning.
Trib+Water: What are the challenges you run across in creating these new models? Also, what are the big uncertainties in assessing the state’s future water needs?
Furnans: It’s a challenge to take the water that’s flowing in the river on any given moment and compare that to what’s modeled over an entire month. A lot of the streams and rivers in Texas are very flashy. You have periods of high flows, periods of low flows that get averaged out over a month. The variability in stream flows are not really captured in the water availability models. That is a pretty large source of uncertainty because it essentially says that the state’s planning models are good for long range planning and average conditions but yet they can’t really be used to manage water on a day-to-day, moment to moment, real-time basis.
The modeling I’ve been developing here at INTERA really tries to use gauge stream flow records as opposed to these monthly averages and apply the same sort of priority “who gets what water when” and make those priority decisions based on the gauge stream flows and I feel that gives a much better, much more accurate and much more practical representation of water availability for water rights holders in Texas.
Trib+Water: What do you wish that the public understood better about the challenges facing the state on water?
Furnans: Everybody points to the fact that currently we have a severe drought and we don’t have very much water and water supplies are getting scarce. Yet, there’s this notion that all we have to do is desalinate water and then we have all the water we need. The flip-side of that is that desalination is very expensive. It’s not worth the cost.
I would like to see a greater understanding of the real value of water and how undervalued water is as a resource for Texas and has been historically. It’s a standard line that if you have something all the time, you take it for granted and you undervalue it. Now that we don’t have the water, we’re really starting to understand how much of our daily lives and the excellent quality of life that we have developed in Texas is dependent upon a good reliable supply of water.
Trib+Water: How would you go about assigning the proper value to the water we use?
Furnans: I am not an economist so I wouldn’t look at it from that perspective but I would look at it more from the fact that most people spend more on their cell phone bill each month than they do on their water bill. You can currently live without a phone but you can’t really live without the water. It’s just assessing the relative priorities of expenses in your life. I think that water should be placed higher on the list.
Trib+Water: Is it that our thinking about how to frame the solution might be a little off as well? Waiting for rain doesn’t seem like the most effective way of dealing with the structural challenges facing the state.
Furnans: We can’t just wait through another seven years of drought and hope we make it. We really have to plan ahead. The city of Austin is doing a great job right now with their water task force. They’re looking at all different types of water supply strategies that can help the city of Austin right away, as the Colorado River supplies are low currently.
But then at the same time, in the last few weeks, we’ve had a decent amount of rain in the Austin area and the lakes have increased by a good supply. And that starts to make people feel like, well, we don’t really need additional water supplies. It’s a bit of a juggling act. I think we really do need to plan for these emergency situations and have the backup water supplies in place. And doing so will just guarantee that there are sufficient supplies to keep Texas moving forward.