2017 State Water Plan an improvement, but more needed to protect our rivers

The Texas Water Development Board will vote today on the 2017 Texas State Water Plan, which outlines the state’s water management and demands over the next 50 years and is updated every 5 years. The 2017 Plan, which aggregates the plans from the 16 water planning regions of Texas, has a total estimated cost of $62.6 billion, much of which will be financed through SWIFT (State Water Implementation Fund for Texas) low-interest loans. Much of these projects are to meet the increased demand for water Texas will be facing over the next half century; Texas’s population is projected to increase more than 70%. While water demands are supposed to increase much more moderately at 17% from 2020 to 2070, our existing water supply is not enough to meet our future demand for water, according to the 2017 plan. The plan includes 5,500 management strategies that will create an additional 8.5 million acre-feet of water in 2070.

Overall, the plan is an improvement over the 2012 plan. It includes drought management and water conservation as a major management strategy. The plan rightly anticipates per capita water demands will continue to drop over time as more efficient water appliances are installed through utilities and conservation is encouraged, especially in municipal areas as these demands are supposed to grow much more slowly compared to population growth. The plan projects that 45 percent of new water demand in the next 50 years will be met through conservation and reuse projects, drought management and aquifer storage and recovery (up from 34% in the 2012 plan) and, for the first time and importantly, the plan includes a significant share of capital costs that are directly associated with water conservation strategies (key to getting state funding from SWIFT).

However, there are some important shortcomings.

Water Withdrawal

First of all, there's still too much of an emphasis in the $62.2 billion plan on creating new major reservoirs (26 in total), which threaten ecosystems as water diversions decrease flows in rivers and streams that are important to aquatic and riparian life. While water management strategies must be put in place in order to prevent shortages and ensure Texas has enough water available to meet municipal and industrial demands, it should not come at the expense of our aquatic and riparian ecosystems. Lower water levels in our rivers hurt habitat, threaten wildlife, strain drinking water supplies, and disrupt outdoor recreational activities.  The plan doesn't address environmental effects of water projects and doesn't factor in instream flows in rivers and inflows into estuaries and coastal bays as water demands. In many cases, the state has given permission for more water to be withdrawn from rivers than is actually available.

Caution must be taken to make sure instream flows and inflows into coastal regions remain at adequate levels so habitats have enough freshwater. The 2017 plan currently does not identify these environmental water needs, despite a senate bill (SB 3) passed in 2007 for the purpose of identifying flow demands, setting standards, developing strategies to ensure adequate flow. Texas rivers and coastal ecosystems are already suffering, and continuing to ignore environmental water needs will make these problems worse.

Water Demand

While the plan projects drops in per capita water use, it still overestimates what water use could be if we actually took water conservation seriously (e.g. it predicts cities will be at 140 gallons per capita per day fifty years from now, while many cities are already below that today).

Projections for water demand, especially for industrial, power, and agricultural uses continue to be overestimated. For example, the plan projects an increase in water demand for steam-generated electric power even though some major plants have already closed and water demand is expected to drop as more energy is harvested through solar, wind, and more efficient technologies such as air-cooling and gas-firing decreased water demand in the steam sector. Already, Texas wastes about 43 billion gallons of water a year to cool power plants (enough to meet the needs of a city the size of Fort Worth).

The Need for Conservation

The plan is still much more of a wish list than a plan to address what we'll actually need, especially in time of severe drought. Demand will necessarily drop during drought, and Texans demonstrated in the last drought they were willing and able to help conserve water in times of need (e.g. by reducing lawn watering). It's wasteful, both of water and of money, to build a lot of water projects assuming we're going to be using water recklessly in times of crisis.

Conservation is the cheapest and most reliable way to ensure water availability, and Texas can become a water-efficient economy that takes conservation seriously. Many proven technologies can improve the efficiency of water use, including implementing more efficient irrigation technologies in agriculture, increasing the use of drought-tolerant plants and rainwater harvesting in landscaping, and repairing leaking municipal water mains.

Post co-written by Karolyn Newton and Luke Metzger