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The Q&A: Ken Rainwater

In this week's Q&A, we interview Ken Rainwater, a professor at Texas Tech University.

Ken Rainwater is a professor at Texas Tech University.

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Ken Rainwater is a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering at Texas Tech University. He also works at the university’s Water Resources Center. Rainwater’s research focuses on water resources management, issues surrounding groundwater, remediation of contaminated soil and watershed management. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: I saw that you have a new publication that was accepted by the Texas Water Journal. What is it about?

Ken Rainwater: It’s about trying to observe the amount of water that infiltrates through the bottoms of playa lakes in the High Plains of Texas.

Trib+Water: Why is that important?

Rainwater: Well, that is one of the important ways that water can recharge the Ogallala Aquifer.

Trib+Water: That aquifer provides water for the Plains and Panhandle areas, correct?

Rainwater: What we call the Panhandle is the Amarillo area, so we get to call ourselves the Southern High Plains, Lubbock area because we’re kind of more in the pan than the handle.

It’s a major water source. We have three lakes. Lake Meredith is the one that has water in it, which it does right now, and Lake Alan Henry, which is doing really well right now, that help some cities.

All of our irrigation and many of our cities are dependent on the Ogallala for their water supply.

Rainwater: What’s the status of the Ogallala Aquifer right now?

Trib+Water: Well, it depends on where you are. There are some places where people have been using it significantly and the depletion of the aquifer and the drops in the water table year to year have been noted for several decades.

There are other places where the aquifer never really was that thick or the land above it wasn’t the kind that was good for irrigated agriculture. Those places kind of sit there or come up so it depends on where you are.

Recharge is small; less than a couple of inches per year. Where people irrigate they tend to use more water than that. So, places where they irrigate tend to be places where the water goes down.

Trib+Water: What are some other areas that you’re researching?

Rainwater: We’ve been working for a number of years with the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board’s water supply enhancement program. It was originally born as a program to help people deal with invasive brush species in different parts of the country. But along the way we at Texas Tech and others have helped them consider more about the potential impacts of dealing with invasive plant species in watersheds where they are reducing the availability of water.

If you have a watershed that gets sufficient rainfall and has trouble with certain brush species, like juniper that we can remove, like what happens a lot in Central Texas, then perhaps we can target good places for that to be removed and increase our river flows and perhaps our groundwater recharge and spring flows.

Trib+Water: Why are watersheds important?

Rainwater: That’s where the rain falls. An important part of the hydrologic cycle is where does the water start and we pretty much start with what falls from the sky.

As much as we try to encourage it we have limited impact on what falls from the sky. What we would like to do is make sure we have a chance to keep it down here where we are for a while instead of just evapo-transpiring it ...

Trib+Water: What are some of the biggest water issues facing the state today?

Rainwater: Our biggest water issues are associated with how many Texans there are. As our population continues to grow, we have interests in supplying the water needs of those people where they are.

One of the definitions of civilization is that you have the ability to move water. You just don’t have to live next to the good water. We can move it and treat it. We are moving water large distances now.

How much water is enough? I think in many parts of the state we will have to decide that maybe using our good drinking water for watering our lawn may not be the best choice. …

We also have issues of providing good drinking water in our rural areas that have drinking water sources that are currently in need of advanced treatment. Small towns have struggled to afford that treatment. So how do we find ways to make sure those populations stay in proper compliance with systems that they can afford and operate or can operate for them? ...

It’s not all about scarcity. When we have flood situations, are we protecting people appropriately from the flood risks we have? … How do we help people manage the risk and learn where to live safely?

Another question to think about in water resource management is when those floods happen, how can we find ways to capture a little bit of that water and store it for our use for when it’s not flooding?

All of these things balance together.

Trib+Water: What are some of the solutions?

Rainwater: First off, we have the population issues. For our urban areas, how much water is enough?

If you use Fort Stockton as an example … there in Pecos County there is an availability of groundwater that’s been of interest to people for a long time.

You’ve heard of the stories that the springs used to flow freely. Prior to the drought of the ‘50s, the springs were used to irrigate crops east of town. The drought of the ‘50s corresponded with the start of groundwater extractions west of town in the Belding area. The springs haven’t really run very much. …

We think of Fort Stockton as being in a desert area, but it’s a place where there’s a lot of interest in water issues.

For example, in the Belding farms area, the Williams family and Fort Stockton Holdings are interested in using less water for their farming processes and selling that water to Midland or Odessa or somebody else nearby that might make use of that water.

There have been many discussions about which water could be sold. There are challenges dealing with people as they share the water resource and deal with the local groundwater conservation district about how the water supplies there in Fort Stockton, that aren’t used a whole lot, could be valuable if they were shared with other communities. The Fort Stockton area is dealing with that.

We’ve had situations where cities band together and water authorities are formed to serve multiple cities, like the Colorado Municipal District or the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, try to serve people in different ways.

I think there’s a big opportunity today that perhaps third party water providers, or at least treatment providers, could serve a lot of our rural areas that struggle with having the staff of people to do the treatment they need.

Like out in Fort Stockton … when oil is good there are high paying jobs out in the oil patch and that’s where people want to go. There’s potential for there to be some jobs, maybe not as many as the oil patch, for people to be involved in water transmission and treatment, as well. That remains to be seen.

My hope is that in your lifetime we see another round of development of the appropriate infrastructure at the appropriate scales to serve the citizens.

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