Texas Water Woes Demand Bold Action
This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on July 28, 2013.
As the water stored in the Highland Lakes approaches historic lows, this paper has wisely underlined the gravity of the increasing water shortage in the Colorado River basin. And this admonition equally applies to every region of the state. Texas needs more water. These pages, however, propose such a grim resignation to increasing water scarcity as a condition likely to prevail, or worsen, for an indefinite future. Instead of merely lamenting declining supplies and accepting scarcity, why not boldly act to develop new water supplies?
Increased conservation is of course necessary during this drought and should be the first principle of water management in this state, where wide swings from drought to deluge is the history of rainfall over the last seventy-five years. Today’s water shortages, however, are not intractable unless Texans refuse to surmount the status quo. As the landmark 2001 State Water Plan detailed, almost every region of Texas needs to increase available water supplies to meet future demand. With few exceptions, progress on this count has been scant for more than a decade. This acute drought has merely brought the anticipated future early!
Extended, intense drought may dramatically shrink our current supply, but Texas still has formidable water resources in 23 river basins, multiple aquifers, and over 1,000 miles of the Gulf Coast. Sophisticated plans to increase water availability exist, but regulatory, financial, and political obstacles block actions under the plans. Yet, Texans successfully mounted comparably formidable hurdles in the early decades of the 20th century when they “corralled” the Colorado River through the system of six dams above Austin. In many of our river basins, Texas now faces a historic challenge of the same magnitude: the development of new infrastructure to increase water supply.
Expanding the availability of Texas water supply calls for different infrastructure and management than was appropriate for the twentieth century. A prime example: Lower Colorado River Authority’s planned off-channel reservoir in Wharton County takes advantage of much higher annual rainfall (60 inches) than the areas in the upper basin which produce inflows into the Highland Lakes (30 inches). This off-channel reservoir could have captured some of the 800,000 acre feet of water that went into Matagorda Bay in 2012, a volume that is beyond the required freshwater inflows to the bay!
Texas leaders and enterprising water-players in the early 1900’s long struggled with financing and fierce competition between those supporting private water utilities and those intent upon public institutions. The scandals surrounding a key architect of the private model, Samuel Insull, ultimately turned the tide toward public ownership through river authorities, municipalities and water districts. With the advantage of hindsight, today’s water efforts might draw upon the advantages of both sectors through public-private partnerships.
Now, the most unyielding impediments to execution of water projects are federal dictates. At the moment, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considers the state’s appeal of a district court ruling regarding the endangered whooping crane population around Aransas Bay. Were even a lightened version of the lower court’s aggressive ruling against state authority and secure private water rights to prevail, water projects across the state would enter legal limbo. Ask residents in California’s Central Valley how they will raise the estimated $45 billion to protect the endangered Delta Smelt and regain partial water use now denied.
In “Lone Star” T. R. Fehrenbach writes about how the tough Texas environment forged a distinctively tough and action-oriented character in early Texans who never winced at a challenge others might find insuperable. “The vast sweep of land and sky, the great plateaus, the savage drought and frequent, howling storms” meant that “unless man was in ceaseless action the earth overpowered him.”
With the grit that Texans successfully applied to corral water resources in the last century, Texans today can harness new water resources for all water users.
Kathleen Hartnett Whiteis the Distinguished Senior Fellow in Residence and Director for the Armstrong Center for Energy and Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.