Life By the Drop: A Growing Thirst in Austin

Last year’s drought forced Texans to take a hard look at their water resources. But in many ways the crisis just underlined a scarcity already looming in the state. Most people in Texas live in urban areas, yet most of the water still goes to rural agriculture.

Where will the state find the water to sustain its booming urban population? Many believe some of it will have to come from agriculture, where farmers and ranchers will have to cut back. Others stress conservation. And some think that Texans should be investing in major infrastructure projects to develop new water supplies, like desalination.

Today we take a look at where the city of Austin fits into all of this. During roughly the same time frame that Texans endured the worst single-year drought in the state’s history, Austin was the second fastest-growing city in the U.S.

Like many Texas cities (three of which made the census top ten list for population increase last year) Austin ramped up its conservation during the drought. It strictly limited outdoor watering and other major water-drains, and it fought at the state level what it viewed as threats to its water rights.

At the same time, the city undertook a controversial new water treatment plant project to meet its growing needs, needs that some groups said could be answered with more conservation.

Finally, the city fought for changes in how water rights along the Colorado River are managed. Many in Austin watched with concern as water from the Highland Lakes was diverted to downstream agricultural interests at the height of the drought, an experience that prompted the city to supported a new water plan for the region.

As Greg Meszaros, head of Austin’s Water Utility, told StateImpact Texas, “we pay almost 20 times as much per gallon of water compared to agriculture so we work to make sure we get the full benifits of the water we paid for.”

You can listen to the sound portrait and view a slideshow produced by StateImpact Texas’ Filipa Rodrigues by clicking the video player above.

The is the second in a series of special reports on the 2011 drought, Life By the Drop: Drought, Water and the Future of Texas, in collaboration with KUT News and Texas Monthly.
On Friday at 3 p.m., KUT 90.5 FM will air a one-hour documentary on the drought, hosted by Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein and produced by KUT News and StateImpact Texas. The program will air again at 7 p.m. on Monday, and you’ll also be able to hear the entire documentary here and on other public radio stations throughout the state. And you can learn more about the history of the drought at our interactive web page, Dried Out: Confronting the Texas Drought, and share your thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #txwater.

Comments

  • Asowder

    I enjoyed reading your special report about how Texas, where
    I, live is running out of water, and how it looks like nothing is going to
    happen to change that because of regional self-preservation politics, a lack of
    economic determination, and economic greed regardless of environmental impact,
    to be as politically correct as I can be, so I need to begin looking to
    relocate …

    Like I said I enjoyed your articles, as a cumulative read
    they give a good overall view of Texas’ water situation; that water has never been
    of sufficient supply in Texas, be it told to us through ancient cave paintings,
    newspaper reports from 1913, or newsreels and books from the 1950’s.  As my then five year-old son so aptly pointed
    out to me on a globe, “Dad, look at this, here we are”, pointing to Texas, then
    turning the globe east across the Atlantic to North Africa, “and here is the (Sahara)
    desert. That’s why it’s so hot here!” Point made.

    If we, and I mean we as in Texas, and Texans in particular,
    do not want to live a bad futuristic sci-fi disaster scenario which is already
    in the making with the rewriting or water rights legislation, and push to begin
    pumping of brine from aquifers, without practical consideration of where the
    concentrated brine waste is to be disposed of, or the potential effects of compromising
    the structural integrity of the land above these aquifers when the pressure within
    the aquifer lessens due to removal of water – sink holes…

    Before taking such actions, might some less drastic actions
    be considered, such as decreasing evaporation loss from lakes by covering the lakes?
    I’ll bet that if you covered the lakes with a material that would allow for
    say, hydroponic farming, for rice as an example, and that these surfaces were
    leased – the cost would be recovered (and money applied top water
    infrastructure projects, but that is a political battle that will require politicians
    who have Texas interest at heart, not …) , framers would make a profit, and evaporation
    loss would be appreciably decreased depending upon the amount of lake-surface
    covered. Yes, recreational areas would be diminished (big political fight
    there), floating farm areas would need to be rotated, there are logistics that
    will need to be considered and worked out – but if the end result is the difference
    between appreciably increasing the usable yields of water from a reservoirs in
    such a fashion that is both economical and ecologically beneficial, at less
    cost than building desalination projects that increase demand for an already
    stressed electrical system and produce waist brine…

    Waist brine, not what proponents of large scale desalination
    projects like it to be called, but it is an issue that does need to be
    addressed, and begs the question; is large scale centralized water
    manufacturing really the only course that should be perused, or would on sight water
    manufacturing by evaporation or atmospheric extraction (aquasciences.com) be
    economically more feasible to implement, and ecologically of less impact?

    Such a system would require shift from our current
    centralized utility model to one of decentralized / on site production. It seems
    like it would in Texas best interest to promote, a Geo/Solar/Wind powered/generated
    water production technology (evaporation/atmospheric) system, affordable to
    residential / commercial, as  the
    potential cumulative addition to the states’ water supply from mainstream on
    site residential/commercial production would provide a predictable volume of
    water thereby enabling the sustainability of ecological systems such as the Gulf
    of Mexico, and surface agricultural (rice, ranching, etc. – currently at a loss
    of  you said over how many billion?) that
    rain alone will allow for.

    I’m, pretty sure you see where I am going with this. I hope
    you will pursue it in future editions.

    Thanks, you report is a longtime overdue, but I’m glad you
    did it.

    Andrew Sowder.       
     

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