Texas Ignores Climate Change and Common Sense Water Solutions

Texas officially just had its worst one-year drought ever and according to the State Climatologist, drought conditions could last for another 5 to 15 years (!).  If that were to occur, this drought could rival the drought of the 1950s as the worst ever in state history.  Across Texas, the drought has caused billions of dollars in losses to ranchers and farmers, contributed to wildfire risks, dried up lakes, and forced communities to implement mandatory water restrictions. 

On the heels of this record-breaking summer, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) released a draft version of the 2012 State Water Plan for public review and comment.  The state plan builds upon plans submitted by the 16 water planning regions to ensure that adequate water supplies exist to meet water needs over the next 50 years.  Texas currently uses the drought of the 1950s as the water planning benchmark and according to the draft plan, if this drought were to occur again within the next 50 years, the state could face a shortfall of more than 8 million acre-feet—equivalent to nearly six times the amount of water currently in Lake Livingston, north of Houston.  To address the gap between growing water demand and available supplies over the next half-century, the TWDB recommends strategies such as water conservation, new reservoirs and pipelines, desalination of brackish groundwater, and water reuse.  The total capital cost of implementing the strategies recommended in the plan is a whopping $53 billion. 

While the state should be commended for being proactive about long-term water supply planning, there are several notable problems with the plan. 

First, it largely avoids considering the impacts of climate change on future water supply and demand.  In the plan, the TWDB alleges that climate change is a so-called “ambiguous” risk, or a risk that is plagued with so much uncertainty that it’s not known when it might happen, what the impacts might be, or if it will happen at all.  This characterization is not founded in reality or supported by the facts.  This shouldn’t be surprising since this is the same state government that has removed references to climate change and sea level rise from a report on Galveston Bay.     

Last week, yet another scientific study released results confirming that climate change is indeed occurring.  The TWDB itself even acknowledges in the plan that temperatures could rise by up to 4°F by mid-century due to climate change.  Even if precipitation does not change, higher temperatures in the future virtually guarantee drier conditions in the state as rates of evaporation and evapotranspiration increase.  If precipitation declines, be prepared to see droughts just as bad or even worse than any experienced during the 20th century—this means that considering climate change, the estimated 8 million ac-ft water shortage in 50 years could be even worse. 

Considering what’s at stake, you would think the state would be more proactive about finding out what the impact of climate change on the state’s water supply and demand might be over the next 50 years.  Think again.  The TWDB claims it’s too difficult to model impacts regionally and there’s too much uncertainty in using today’s downscaled climate models.  Yet, other states are somehow finding a way to do it.  Oklahoma recently released their comprehensive state water plan in which they modeled the potential impacts of climate change on both future water supplies and demands.  Colorado has done this type of analysis as well on future water supplies from the Colorado River.

Second, the Texas plan relies heavily on traditional “gray” or “hard” infrastructure, such as dams and pipelines, which are extremely expensive and inflexible—not to mention the large environmental impacts from these kinds of projects.  Instead, the plan should be giving greater consideration to strategies like improving water conservation and efficiency and green infrastructure that will perform well despite uncertainty about future water supplies.  Water conservation and efficiency measures are relatively low-cost and serve to lower water demand and enhance existing water supplies.  Therefore, Texas should be doing more to encourage widespread adoption of conservation and efficiency practices such as water efficient landscapes, water-conserving plumbing fixtures, improved irrigation efficiency, and commercial and industrial water audits. 

Amazingly, the plan also makes no mention of green infrastructure.  Green infrastructure or low impact development, such as porous pavement, green roofs, rain gardens, and rain barrels, either store rain when it falls or allow it to filter into the ground naturally.  By allowing water to infiltrate the ground, green infrastructure practices increase water supplies by contributing to aquifer recharge.  These strategies can also reduce water demand when water is captured in barrels or cisterns for reuse.  In contrast to many of the strategies proposed by the TWDB, green infrastructure is inherently adaptable due to its decentralized approach—a clear benefit when it comes to overcoming greater variability in future hydrologic conditions.

Ignoring something doesn’t make it go away.  Climate change is a very real threat and will seriously challenge the way that we view and use water in many parts of this country.  The smartest states are starting to prepare now.  Instead of looking at the past to guide the future and relying on traditional approaches to meet future water needs, Texas should focus on ways to use existing resources in a smarter and more efficient manner and on innovative approaches to utilize water where it falls.