Building a water-resilient future for all Texans

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This column first appeared in The Austin American Statesman on September 16, 2019.

After heavy rains last winter and early this summer, Texas is seeing a rapid return to hot, bone-dry conditions. While we watch our lawns brown and wait for the rains to return, the age-old question echoes again, “Does fast-growing Texas, which is adding 1,000 new residents every day, have enough water to weather future prolonged droughts?”

Without more efficient water practices and broader uptake of water reuse technologies, the answer could well be, ‘No.’ And that could mean a ruinous situation of “haves and have-nots” when the next dry spell hits. As we saw during the 2011-2015 drought, while all of us are affected by drought, some are more vulnerable than others – especially our farms, our rural communities and our rivers and bays.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Texas has enormous opportunities to invest in realistic, long-lasting water solutions that will ensure ample water flows for all Texans, no matter their income or zip code.

But it will require big changes in how we think about water and where it comes from. The state’s historic reliance on rivers, reservoirs and groundwater – resources that are increasingly strained due to growing water demands and hotter, drier conditions – is not a viable long-term solution. We need to incentivize using all sources of water, including rainwater, wastewater and stormwater, to boost local water supplies.

We’re already seeing the benefits of proven technologies, such as rainwater harvesting, aquifer recharge and other types of water reuse. Consider: Toyota’s Plano headquarters is using rainwater harvesting tanks to collect up to 400,000 gallons of water for irrigation, thereby saving more than 11 million gallons of drinking water annually. Austin’s Central Library stores 350,000 gallons of harvested rainwater and air conditioning condensate to meet nearly 90 percent of its total water needs. San Antonio and El Paso are storing large amounts of surplus water in underground aquifers for use during dry periods – a process known as managed aquifer recharge.

But these efforts are only a drop in the bucket of what is possible.

Austin’s 100-year “Water Forward Plan,” which I helped draft as chair of the city’s planning Task Force, estimates that nearly a third of the city’s future additional supplies can be sourced from buildings that capture and reuse their own water. Even with a population four times larger than today’s, the plan envisions the city meeting its future water needs without importing outside water supplies.

What will it take to realize these vast opportunities so urban and rural areas can continue to thrive even as our cities add millions more people?

One of the keys is to look beyond our tried-and-true water storage repositories—reservoirs—for our future resilience. This is an imperative in large part because surface reservoirs lose so much water. Austin’s primary water source, the Highland Lakes, evaporates as much water every year as Austin’s million residents use.

Greater cooperation between urban and rural communities is another key step. Rural areas are a vast untapped resource for storing water for flood protection and urban water supplies. Bur rural communities need cities to step up as real partners by investing in land conservation and paying rural landowners for the flood and water supply services their lands provide.

Here in Austin, this partnership with rural communities is a core ethic of our water supply planning. It is another reason why we are investing within our borders in smaller-scale projects for capturing, storing and reusing water. As more of these projects are built, we can demonstrate to our rural neighbors that we recognize that water supply sourcing starts at home.

No doubt, the state’s water challenges are big. But we have the technologies, the resources and the market-based culture that is needed to grow our economy while leaving no Texans thirsty.

Leurig is CEO of Texas Water Trade, a new nonprofit group based in Austin, and chair of Austin’s Water Forward Implementation Task Force.

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