We’ve been posting videos and reports recently from a series on the drought by PBS Newshour done in collaboration with StateImpact Texas. The series is part of a larger project by PBS Newshour in partnership with local public media, Coping With Climate Change, that looks at how a transforming climate affect’s everyday life. Today’s piece is an interview with Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University, about current water policy and where the state can go from here.
A: Well, it’s happening because Texas is one of the most rapidly urbanizing states in the United States. We expect that we will have twice as many people here in the next 40 or 50 years, and we have already given permission for more water to be withdrawn from many of our rivers than is actually in them today. So we’re reaching a crisis that’s brought on by declining water supplies and a rapidly growing population. Essentially, we’ve got more straws in the ground, which causes situations like Spicewood [Beach] and Robert Lee to occur.
Q: Considering the drastic measures that these two towns have had to take, like building a pipeline for a million and half dollars and trucking in water on a day-to-day basis, do you think the situation is likely to get worse?
A: I believe that it will get worse. I think it will get worse until we begin to make some fundamental changes in terms of how we view water, how we price it, and how we use it particularly.
Q: And what about places like Spicewood that are now starting to figure out that they either have to dig deeper wells, or find different wells altogether?
A: Well, I think there’s probably a couple of things that communities are going to have to do. Number one is stop using so much water. We waste too much water. The city of San Antonio, for example, has lowered its consumption of water by 40% per capita. They’ve grown by a million people over the last 15 years and their overall consumption of water is flat. So we need to be more efficient… Secondly, we need to diversify our supply. One of the reasons these communities are in so much trouble is that they are dependent on only one source, which is groundwater. So when that declines they don’t have an alternative.
Q: So you mentioned diversification as an important measure to take. Where else can we get water from?
A: Well… in the future we are going to be desalinating water. We have a couple of desalination plants in operation in Texas already. One is in El Paso, which is a joint project between the City of El Paso the city and Fort Bliss and it desalinates brackish groundwater… Just very near where we are today is probably the most intense concentration of residential rainwater collection in the United States, so we can do a lot more to collect rain water on this site. We are also going to start moving water into Texas. One of the most interesting things about our state is that rainfall is 60” on our eastern border, where there is virtually no particular growth, and there is 25” of annual rainfall here in the central part of the state where growth is explosive. And so probably we’ll be moving water across the state in the years to come.
Q: It seems like entire communities are pitting themselves against one another each time the LCRAs decides on whether or not to release water from upstream to flow down for rice farmers. Should we expect more of that?
A: Mark Twain said that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting, and he is turning out to be prophetic because that fight is accelerating in Texas today. The reason for that is our water rights system dates all the way back to when we were a Spanish colony. And yet the conditions and economics uses [for that system] are completely different than they were 400 years ago. At the time that our water rights system was created, there was not only no one living on these lakes, they [the lakes] weren’t here… So the water flowed down to rice farmers on the southern part of the basin and they got all they needed. Today, the economic engine gendered by recreation, residential growth, and tourism up on [Lake Travis] far exceeds the [size of the] rice industry, and so there is a pitched battle underway as to who should get the water and it’s going to worse. Essentially, we’re struggling with a system [created] hundreds of years ago… and bears no resemblance to what we look like [today].
Q: Is the state planning accordingly for the possibility that we might have a long drought, or a much more significant drought?
A: I would say belatedly. We have, up until recently, affirmatively denied in state policy that climate change is even a possibility. That is changing. The current draft of the water plan acknowledges that the climate may be changing, so I think there’s a growing recognition that the 1950s drought may not be as bad as it can ultimately get. In terms of preparing for a really serious drought, we are behind the eight ball. And once again, I think it’s because we are urban and we don’t realize that it will affect us economically in a much different way than it did a generation ago.
Q: Do you think what’s happening to Texas is going to start to happen in other parts of the country?
A: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s already happening — probably worse than our situation — in Arizona and Nevada, states that are served by the other Colorado River, so I don’t think there is any question [about that] and that it will start in the southwest.
Q: What do you want people to understand about what’s happening in Texas?
A: I think two things. Number one, to understand that water is essential for all of life. All plants, all animals are dependent on water, more so than any other substance and that we do have the capacity to exhaust our supplies of water. We need to remember that as we plan our water use that we also make sure that we leave enough in the system for the environment, because human use is only one part of the equation. If we don’t have water flowing down our rivers and streams and into our basins and aquifers then we’re going to have a tremendous ecosystem collapse as well. So it’s a human issue but it’s also an environmental issue.