With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Tim Loftus is a faculty member in the Department of Geography at Texas State University. He also serves as chair in water conservation at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. Loftus’s research focuses on water conservation, among other topics.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Can you tell me a bit about the research you do and any recent projects?
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Tim Loftus: I’m relatively new at Texas State. As I mentioned, I began Sept. 1, and I’m a faculty member in our Department of Geography and the Meadows endowed chair in water conservation. So my emphasis is on water resources, whether it’s looking at ways to reduce demand for water or increase efficiency and reduce utility water loss and waste, or even exploring ways to manage land for the purpose of conserving water.
For example, I just launched a project earlier this month with a couple of graduate students, where we’re going to be exploring urban water conservation potential in region K, which includes Austin, and region C, which includes the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. One of my students is going to be evaluating residential water use and my other student commercial, industrial and institutional water use. We’re looking at what the potential might be to continue to push conservation and efficiency. And once we develop a sense for that potential we’ll have a basis by which we can compare, for example, the conservation strategies and regional plans. Are they going far enough, is it an underestimate of potential, for example?
I’ve been busy for my first nine, 10 months really just trying to develop relationships and learn about the water issues and all the different agencies and players in the area of water in Texas, because there’s quite a bit going on here and quite a few entities that have a stake and an interest in how we plan and manage water resources.
I just put a team together and we submitted a grant proposal to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because their climate and health program is interested in learning about the health effects of drought. As I began to study drought and learn about the relationship between drought and Texas, I discovered of course that Texas may be the most drought-prone state in the nation. And yet, by one yardstick, an organization that evaluated all 50 states for their preparedness on climate-related threats, like heat and drought and hurricanes and so forth, they judged Texas to be the least prepared. And so I think there’s work to be done there.
This particular proposal, really the emphasis, if it were to get funded, and over a five-year period, would be on developing intervention programs to help create resiliency at the community and individual level, particularly with at-risk populations. There’s more that could be done related to drought.
And I’ve been working with others, just kicking around ideas and exploring what we might do with landowners, particularly in the Hill Country, or anywhere in the state of Texas for that matter, to begin to try to figure out what sort of interaction with landowners and arrangements might be made to better conserve water, better manage and conserve land to conserve water. That’s a pretty big topic here, particularly with quite a bit of new emphasis on environmental flows. I think at some point landowners, particularly those that have an allocation for surface water as well those with permits for groundwater, they play a key role in how much water is left in our rivers and streams to support aquatic diversity.
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Those are a couple ideas. I’m going to be talking with Texas Water Development Board staff later this month about the water loss data that they’re collecting and some ideas for doing some analysis with those data just to see if we can’t further inform the conversation around reducing utility water loss, which in most cases will save ratepayers a good deal of money.
Trib+Water: You spoke to this some related to the drought, but how does Texas and its water situation compare to other parts of the U.S.? What water challenges, if any, are unique to Texas?
Loftus: I think both Texas and California are probably the two primary states where we have advanced institutional infrastructure and knowledge with respect to planning and managing water resources. Obviously California is facing an epic drought at the moment and it wasn’t so long ago that Texas was, so these are two states where of necessity we really do need to be pushing the envelope with respect to maximizing efficiency and conversation, among other strategies, for avoiding any kind of imbalance between supply and demand.
Texas is unique in one respect, because we have a completely different legal regime that governs surface water compared to the legal regime that covers groundwater. In Texas surface water is the property of the state and the state allocates the usage of surface water, but in the case of groundwater it’s considered private property. And while management of that resource is certainly evolving, I think there is still quite a ways to go to, for example, better understand the interaction between surface water and groundwater and kind of manage water more holistically, rather than [as] two separate and distinct entities.