Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Living with Drought and Thirst: Examples for Texas to Follow

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

The skeleton of a fish sits on the dry shores of Lake Buchanan, which is nearing historically low levels.

The State Comptroller’s office released a report on the economic impact of the current drought this week. The paper is short (just 12 pages), highly readable, and even has some nice visual breakdowns of the drought. I highly recommend taking some time to read it (embedded below).

Water demand in Texas is expected to rise 22 percent by 2060, according to the state’s Water Development Board. They say if we have another drought like the one of record from the 1950s, losses could total $116 billion by then.

One part of the report worth noting doesn’t come until the end, and that’s what can Texas learn from other places that have had to deal with growing populations, less water, and persistent drought. Let’s take a look.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Photo by Getty Images

The city of half a million discovered twenty years ago that its “aquifer was being drawn down twice as fast as nature could replenish it,” the report says. After enacting “aggressive” conservation and education campaigns, the city’s per capita usage fell by almost 38 percent. How’d they do it?

  • Pass on Grass. The city passed strict requirements on landscaping for new devlopments, “such as prohibiting the use of high-water-use grasses on more than 20 percent of a landscaped area.”
  • Be a Xero. The city offers “generous” rebates for xeriscaping, landscaping that needs little water and uses native, drought-resistant plants. They total up to $500 for residential rebates and $700 for commercial. They even held classes to teach the public about xeriscaping, paying people $20 each to attend. The city says that people who took the class reduced their water use by 28 percent.
  • Flush Wisely. The city mandates high-efficiency toilets in all new residential construction, and gives rebates of up to $100 for upgrades to water-efficient commodes and washing machines in existing homes. They’ll also give you a free water audit of your home and will install water-efficient plumbing for you free of charge.
  • Waste Not, Pay Not. The city also cracked down on water wasters with fines, for both commercial and residential users. Are you over-watering to the extent that you’re creating new streams down the gutter? You could be getting a ticket from one of the city’s “water cops,” who go on patrols looking for water waste.
  • Mix It Up. Lastly, the city spent money in the early 1990s diversifying its water portfolio, getting less water from its aquifer and more from the Colorado River.

Phoenix, Arizona

Photo by Flickr user gwilmore/Creative Commons

The Valley of the Sun could teach Texas a thing or two about making the most of the water you have. Despite a 15 percent growth rate over the last fourteen years and a population of 1.3 million, per capita water use has gone down, the report says. How’d they do it?

  • Diversify Your Portfolio. Like Albuquerque, Phoenix diversified its sources of water, and now gets its H20 from several aquifers, surface water sources and even one groundwater source.
  • Drink it All Over Again. The city “treats and reuses about 40 percent of the water it delivers to its customers,” the report says. This “grey water” is then used for agriculture and cooling a nuclear reactor.
  • Somebody Call the Water Cops. Phoenix also has “water cops” that go after waste. But there’s a few carrots with the stick: rebates and incentives for water efficiency, and progressive water rates, which boils down to “the more water you use, the more you pay.”

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Photo by Flickr user kevincole/Creative Commons

It’s a small city, with just over 100,000 residents. But it’s also a dry one, with about 12 inches of rainfall on average. Two years ago, they found themselves in a severe drought, and after study determined their groundwater sources were too unreliable. How’d they survive?

  • Thinning Out. One problem with the surface water in Santa Fe is that it was surrounded by trees, which took water from the lake and could damage the water if there was a forest fire. So they did controlled burns and forest thinning to better protect the source.
  • Ask Permission First. Before starting new residential or commercial construction, you have to give the city an estimate of how much water the project will use, and spell out where that water will come from. “In other words,” the report says, “allowable growth is directly tied to the amount of water available.”
  • Rain-catchers. One project “stores excess rainfall and surface water in an underground aquifer for future use,” the report says.

Tuscon, Arizona

Photo by Flickr user Buck Lewis/Creative Commons

The city faced a water crisis in the mid-1980s, the report says, personified by lots of sinkholes “caused by the massive use of groundwater and the inability of aquifers to replenish fast enough.” How’d they handle it?

  • No new lawns allowed. If you want to build a new house or commercial building in the city, you have to xeriscape.
  • Rebates, rebates, rebates. The city will pay you back in part for “xeriscaping, water efficient-appliances and rainwater and ‘grey water’ harvesting.” Along with big public education campaigns to change how people use water, the city’s per capita usage has gone from “200 gallons in 1985 to 130 gallons in 2010,” the report says.
  • Turning Grey Into Blue. They also reuse about seven percent of their water. “Most golf courses, city parks, schools and some commercial green spaces use reclaimed water for irrigation,” the report says. The city passed a rule a few years ago that says reused water should supply “half of all commercial irrigation.”

What could Texas do with some of these ideas? For one, major cities in the state could enact similar restrictions on water-intensive grass like St. Augustine in new developments and rebates for native and drought-resistant grasses. Cities could start “water cop” patrols to enforce penalties for wasting water, reuse more of their “grey water” for municipal irrigation, and do more to encourage water efficiency upgrades. Nearly a quarter of the new water for Texas in the state water plan will come from saving the water we already have.

How exactly that water plan will be enacted and funded is still an open question, but these other southwestern cities may provide some innovative solutions and best practices as Texas goes forward.

Read the ‘Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond Report:’


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