Carlos Rubinstein: Short-term, temporary fixes will not solve Texas’ long-term water needs

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Carlos Rubinstein, a board member of Texas Water Trade (TWT), will moderate a “Water Valuation & Water Markets” panel August 20 at the Texas Groundwater Summit in San Antonio. Sharlene recently caught up with him to talk about the state’s water challenges and changes that are needed to ensure future flows.

An edited version of their conversation is below.

You’re a busy man who is already helping to run two water organizations in Texas. Why are you devoting time and serving on the board at Texas Water Trade?

Carlos Rubinstein:  I am a firm believer that Texas cannot solve its water problems if it cannot move water from where it is to where it is needed – and not just for consumptive purposes – but with the environment in mind. TWT is focused on fulfilling a key pillar from Senate Bill 1 (SB-1) (1997) – solving our water demands by identifying and executing voluntary transfers of water for our differing needs and elevating the priority of some uses, particularly the environment.

 

You’re involved with Texas 2036, a group that is empowering Texans and government to make informed decisions using data and long-term strategies to ensure a sustainable, vibrant economy through 2036. What is the water data telling us as we look two decades ahead?

Rubinstein:While I am involved and strongly support Texas 2036, I am not authorized or want to portray myself as speaking for them.  Having said that, I share in the premise that Texans benefit when water policies are developed, not by meeting a temporary pressing need, but by achieving long-term sustainable goals. These decisions are best when based on sound facts and science. While we excel in water planning in Texas, we must do a better job in implementing needed water management strategies.  If we fail to do so, we fail on the primary desired outcome of our state water planning process that we established over 20 years ago – to better prepare Texas for a repeat of the drought of record. This is more critical when we take into account our history, recognizing that within the past 500 years Texas has experienced droughts much worse than previous droughts of record and is likely to do so again in the future.  We must take these facts into account, coupled with declining sources of water, population growth and projected impacts of a changing climate.

 

Texas has long relied on rivers and other surface waters, as well as groundwater, to meet growing water demand. Are these approaches sustainable? Who bears the biggest risks if the water runs out?

Rubinstein:We are not managing our water sources in a sustainable manner or as sustainably as we should.  But we are fortunate that our water supply is resilient and can “recover” to a degree during wet periods.  The environment is impacted when our water is depleted. This means a loss of economic value and ecological health.  Adverse agricultural impacts follow almost immediately with even greater and at times irreversible damage. Our public health is also at risk when water sources are depleted and unable to meet water demands, particularly during drier times.  And, as we saw in 2011, it even threatens our ability to maintain electrical production capabilities. Coupled with the mining of groundwater beyond recharge rates, our need to diversify our water portfolio and develop more sustainable uses of water driven by conservation, reuse, aquifer storage and recovery (ASR), and desalination development will be of critical importance.

 

At Texas Water Trade, we are focused on leveraging market forces and innovative water technologies to strengthen local water supplies. What do these themes mean to you and what innovative technologies are you most excited about? 

Rubinstein:I am most excited about alternative delivery mechanisms that can best manage development risks of needed projects, be it development or preservation or both.  In this regard, I view private capital investment as a much-needed tool that we have yet to incentivize in Texas. This can lead to more rapid implementation of more sustainable projects (ASR, desalination, etc.) that can reduce our reliance on declining surface and groundwater sources.

 

Texas has a strong commitment to protecting water rights holders and giving them opportunities to transfer – or trade – those rights. Why is this issue so important in protecting the state’s environmental flows?

Rubinstein:Central to establishing a proper value for water and fostering water trade and transference is a predictable regulatory process.  To a degree we have that – we know who has an ownership claim on surface water or groundwater. Processes that result in a forced regulatory redistribution of water are, in my mind, counterproductive. Voluntary market-based transactions are a key goal of SB-1. Restrictions on the movement of water, such as the junior provision in surface water, are counter to proper valuation of water and associated intended or implied benefits of property rights to ownership of water. When it comes to environmental flows, we continue to lack tools for ensuring that water left in stream for the beneficial use of providing instream flows is protected and properly valued.

 

What will it take to take bigger advantage of water trading opportunities that can benefit both Texans and our natural ecosystems? Is it a regulatory issue, a financing issue, or both?  

Rubinstein:When we allow ourselves to properly value water taking into account all uses, including the environment and preservation of environmental flow benefits, we can better determine economic benefits for the areas where we want to develop and import water as well. We can also better determine the economic impact to the areas of origin for water that is exported.  Proper valuation can lead to greater recognition of the value of water in place—including water left instream and in groundwater storage—and can also serve as a driver towards enhanced conservation.

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