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December 2007


Keeping Texas Liquid

Officials attempt to boost the state’s water supply in the face of population growth

By Tracey Lamphere

“We never know the worth of water ’til the well is dry.”
— Thomas Fuller, physician and author, 1732.

If Fuller was right, Texans may truly know water’s worth by mid–century.

Water could become scarcer in the next six decades if conservation is sidestepped and new sources aren’t found. One of the weightier forces at play is the projected near–doubling of the state’s population by 2060.

Texans could consume 21.6 million acre–feet of water annually by then, according to the State Water Plan, yet the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) projects that the state’s supply could only be 14.6 million acre–feet without serious improvements. (An acre–foot is the amount of water needed to fill an acre to the depth of a foot.)

The board’s 2007 State Water Plan estimates it will cost more than $30 billion from now until 2060 to fund recommended water management strategies. It will take more than $173 billion — including the $30 billion — to distribute and clean water and control floods by then.

Gauging the Need

Time Will Tell

Forty–five million thirsty Texans will challenge the state’s ability to supply water in 2060.
— State Water Plan

Texas has about 191,000 miles of streams and rivers, 15 major river basins and eight coastal basins. Of nearly 200 major reservoirs, 175 provide more than half of the state’s water supply. Even with this past summer’s record–setting rainfall, we are never far from our next drought.

Texas uses about 711 million gallons each day, with 60 percent going to agriculture, 15 percent to industry and 25 percent directly to the state’s 23.5 million citizens, according to the TWDB.

Texas’ major reservoirs lose about 90,000 acre–feet of storage capacity per year from sedimentation, or about 4.5 million acre–feet of water by 2060. New major reservoirs, though helpful, aren’t expected to supply as much water as what is lost through sedimentation.

The 2007 water plan identified 14 new major reservoir sites and two minor ones, which were designated as such by the 2007 Legislature during its 80th session. The plan, a five–year culmination of work by regional water planning groups, estimates that water demands will increase 27 percent, from about 17 million acre–feet in 2000 to 21.6 million acre–feet in 2060. Yet supply will begin dropping off, with 17.9 million acre–feet in 2010 dwindling to 14.6 million acre–feet by 2060. If current conditions continue, the state is looking at an 8.8 million acre–feet gap in supply versus demand, according to the State Water Plan.

TWDB says that not implementing the plan would leave about 85 percent of the state’s projected population without enough water in drought conditions by 2060.

Although a strong statement, it’s one to be mindful of, says Ken Rainwater, director for the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech University. He says the definition of drought is very personal. It revolves around the question: Is the water where people want it, when they want it, and is there enough to fill the need? This brings up another crucial question — how much water do we really need?

People in the major metro areas of the state each used an average of 140 to 240 gallons a day in 2004, depending on the cities where they lived. If driven only by our desire for perpetually green lawns, clean cars and sparkling swimming pools, the gallons per capita consumed daily might be considerably higher, but some cities have made significant headway in conservation.

The Best Bargain

San Antonio, one of the most water–conserving cities in the country, enacted a 2006 ordinance that seeks a per capita usage of 132 gallons per day. Last year its residents averaged using 136 gallons, and offi cials hope to see that number fall to 116 by 2016. Regulations on sprinkler systems, landscaping, restaurants and carwashes have helped the city approach its goal.

San Antonio Water System (SAWS) officials say the city’s draw from the Edwards Aquifer is still at 1988 levels, despite more than 300,000 additional residents today. By not having to supply an additional 175 billion gallons of water, the system has saved $549 million, says Karen Guz, SAWS director for conservation.

“Conservation is always the best bargain,” Guz says.

SAWS figures that every $1 invested in conservation efforts saves $7. SAWS invests $5 million a year into direct conservation efforts and has a yearly water savings goal of 500 million gallons, or about one less gallon per person per day.

SAWS has even given away dual–flush toilets to people whose homes were built before 1992. Twice as many as expected have been given out after a water department official demonstrated the toilet’s power on a local TV show. He flushed an Idaho potato, the footage of which later landed on YouTube.

“The toilets are walking themselves out the door,” Guz says. “Who knew toilets could be so popular?”

The easiest way to conserve water is to replace old fixtures and appliances. Two major hotels recently switched to low–flow (not low–pressure) showerheads and dual–flush toilets, saving 40 to 47 percent in average water usage. Customers have enjoyed the change too. The Omni Hotel ascended several rankings in customer satisfaction among its peers after the new showerheads were installed.

The overall message isn’t about deprivation, but efficiency. That includes lawn maintenance.

“We find here in San Antonio that it is not necessary to irrigate home landscapes more than one time per week in order to have them look attractive,” Guz says. “Every three to five days would be too often. And in the winter, one irrigation per month is all that is called for if there is not a soaking rain that month. Often no irrigation is needed at all between mid–November and March.”

Irrigation needs are tracked with weather data, and consumers can get watering advice from SAWS’ free Seasonal Irrigation Program (SIP), a partnership with Texas A&M Cooperative Extension.

“People have wonderful conservation ethics that are part of their daily lives,” Guz says.

El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU) began installing leak detection loggers three years ago. About 10,000 have been used throughout the system. If a leak is detected, the units transmit a signal, and information is sent to officials who then dispatch a crew to fix the leak. EPWU claims leak detection saves the system about 700 million gallons of water per year.

The Tug on Texas Water: Texans use about 711 million gallons each day, with 60% going to agriculture, 15% to industry and 25% directly to the state's 23.5 million residents. - The Texas Water Development Board.

Savings By Agriculture

Overall water consumption in agriculture is expected to decline from 60 to 40 percent of all water usage statewide by 2060. The State Water Plan recommends irrigation scheduling, on–farm irrigation audits, low–pressure pivot sprinkler heads and drip irrigation systems for conservation.

Drip irrigation systems deliver water directly to the plants’ roots, and their water usage — just a trickle compared with traditional methods — is measured in gallons per hour, not per minute. According to the plan, conservation efforts would save 1.4 million acre–feet of water in 2060, which is about 17 percent of agricultural water consumption.

Cost is a major hurdle. Jeff Johnson, director of farm operations for the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech University, says drip irrigation systems can cost $700 to $800 an acre and LEPA (low energy, precision application) center pivot systems can cost $300 to $400 per acre to install.

Making the best of Mother Nature, many farmers use furrow dikes to maximize rainwater. Mounds of dirt in furrows keep rainwater from running off the land. These are used in irrigated and non–irrigated lands.

In the North Plains region, where the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted faster than it can recharge, it will become more expensive to pump the deeper water out, Johnson says. “At some point it doesn’t pay to pump the water on the crop,” he says. FN

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