We’ve been looking at drought and water issues in Texas here as part of our new series, Life By the Drop, a collaboration with KUT News and Texas Monthly. Nate Blakeslee, a senior editor at the magazine, looks at some of the solutions on the table in his new piece, ‘Drawing Staws.’ In it, he examines the state’s water plans, both past and present, and how Texas has struggled to come up with a comprehensive policy for dealing with drought.
Blakeslee recently sat down with StateImpact Texas’ Mose Buchele to discuss these issues.
Q: How is the state’s water plan today informed by the catastrophic experience of the 1950s drought?
A: Well the 1950s drought, of course, is the benchmark by which all other droughts are measured in Texas. It was the largest drought in the state‘s recorded history, and it went on the longest — which is what I mean to say — and that drought really changed the way we think about water in Texas. It was the impetus for the first statewide water planning that we ever did, and it spurred an enormous building spree in terms of reservoirs, an enormous amount of investment in public infrastructure. Between 1950 and 1980 we built 126 reservoirs, totally changed the landscape in terms of water in Texas.
Q: Some of these same reservoirs that were built after the 50s are reservoirs that we we’re seeing dry up or come dangerously close to drying up today. We’ve one place right outside of Robert Lee in West Texas where the reservoirs has essentially dried up. That goes to show that the measures that were made back then may not be enough to help us in the future.
A: I think its clear — I think it’s one thing that the water plan does make clear — that if Texas continues to grow at the pace that it’s growing today, and has grown over the last generation then we will need major new water infrastructure.
Q: It seems that in Texas, the water is where the people are — could you get into that a little bit?
A: That’s sort of the elephant in the room that no body really wants to talk about — the fact that Texas actually does have a lot of water. It’s just not in the right place. About 40% of us live along a strip along I-35 which is a sub-tropical belt of the state, where it rains about thirty inches a year. Once you go west of 35, it starts to get much drier. But when you go east of the interstate, it gets much wetter. And most of the available water in the state is in Far East Texas, where it rains about 60 inches a year. So the logic here is undeniable, as I wrote in my piece. If Texas is going to continue growing at the pace that it is currently growing, and we are projected to have 46 million people here by the year 2060, which is almost double what we have now, then either the people will have to move East, or the water will have to move West.
The long term problem — of course is that Texas’ population is not stable. It’s growing. It’s growing very quickly. We have 25 million people here today. We’ll have 46 million according to the projections in the state water plan by 2060. And most of those crisis level shortages that the water plan projects are based on this growth — in later decades. And so the idea is that because large infrastructure projects take so long to plan and finance and complete, you have to start planning well, well in advance. That’s why water planners use a 50 year planning horizon.
Q: You use several different terms to describe the water plan in your piece. And I was wondering if I could just get you to — list them or explain — I know you — at one point say wish list — there are other ways you do describe it — what are some of the ways you explain the water plan in this piece and why do you choose those terms?
A: Well, there’s a lot of useful information in the water plan, and it’s presented in a very accessible way. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s essentially a compilation of sixteen regional plans, which are prepared in the various regions of the state. And it doesn’t change the fact that the regional plans themselves are essentially wish lists of projects. You know, the Water Development Board, the six member board, is charged with overseeing the water planning process, but because we have a regional planning process, they essentially delegated most of the authority to these regional groups. Essentially, what they do is, they take these 16 regional plans and they compile them into one document. They do some interesting work in terms of collating and tabulating what sorts of projects are in there, but they don’t exercise a lot of discretion. In other words, they don’t say, ‘This project in this regional plan is a good idea and this one is a bad idea’. And one of the weaknesses of the state water plan as a result is, there’s no real prioritization of which project ought to go first and which one shouldn’t. And that’s not really what most people think of when they think of statewide planning.
Q: So that begs the question. This is a document that over and over again, talking to people who felt the drought last year, they will reference the state water plan as the document that could guide them and save them in the instance of another drought like that. But is that a fair expectation on their parts? Should people look to this as the way that they can assure their water security in the case of another drought?
A: Well I think that the water plan — If you read through the state water plan, it makes a good case that we have a crisis. And that major public investment is called for. What it doesn’t do is provide a blueprint for how that investment ought to be allocated. And it’s kind of a misnomer to describe it as a plan in that sense. I mean, it has over 500 projects in it, 26 major new reservoirs. If you talk to regional planners, sort of off the record, or even sometimes on the record, they’ll tell you most of those reservoirs probably will never be built.
Q: Another thing that seems to be absent in the plan is an enforcement mechanism for the conservation they say is necessary. Is there any way that the state can ensure that under this plan?
A: Well, in theory, the 2012 version of the state water plan has an impressive commitment to conservation. A good deal of our new water source, if that’s the right term for it, will come from conservation according to the water plan, especially in the later decades of the plan. But the plan is fairly short on specifics. I would say that the problem with the conservation measures described in the plan is that there’s no real way to enforce them or to make sure that those things are done. What probably needs to happen is that the legislature needs to take a more active role in water conservation. The state water plan doesn’t call for that, but that’s sort of if you read between the lines. If we are going to achieve the kind of conservation goals that are identified in the water plan, we’re probably going to need some sort of legislative action. For example, the legislature could require every city and town in Texas to use tiered water rates. Most big cities do already, but not all of them do, and most towns don’t. Tiered water rates means that if you are using more water than your neighbor, you’re going to pay a higher rate for the higher usage. It incentivizes you to use less.
Q: Buchele: What are some of the risks the state runs if we don’t find ways of enforcing or funding some of the measures that have been outlined in this plan?
A: The state water plan has identified the cost of doing nothing. In other words, the cost of not building the projects that are suggested in the plan. They have put a price-tag on that. They have said that it will cost the state $116 billion in lost income by the year 2060. Obviously it’s very difficult to make a projection like that. But it does seem clear enough that Texas’ current trajectory of population growth is not sustainable with the water supply we have today.
Q: Aside form the monetary cost, that would indicate a kind of change in the way that people have become accustomed to living. Both on the rural side and in the cities, and the more urban side.
A: Well there is no question, even if we implemented a large number of the projects in the state water plan, there are going to be changes in the way we live in Texas. If we have 46 million people living here in 2060, we’re going to be using water very differently than we are today. We’re going to be conserving a great deal more water. We’re probably not going to have nearly as many green lawns. Green lawns are going to fall out of favor probably long before 2060. And that’s not a trivial thing. An enormous amount of municipal water use is poured on people’s lawns. We’re not going to wash our car for an hour in the driveway. We’re not going to clean our driveway with a hose anymore. We’re going to catch rainwater that falls on our roof and pour it on our gardens. We’re going to xeriscape. We’re going to do a lot of the things that people have been doing in places like San Antonio and El Paso for the last twenty years or more, which they were forced to do by scarcity. Those sorts of conservation strategies are going to become the norm around the state.
The interview has been edited for clarity and content.