Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What We Learned About Water in Texas at the ‘Life By the Drop’ Panel

Photo by Wyman Meinzer/Texas Monthly

The carcasses of two Hereford cows that perished on the Patterson Ranch.

On Thursday evening, Texas Monthly magazine hosted a panel from our Life By the Drop series, which looks at the history and impact of drought and water issues in Texas. The panel, led by Texas Monthly senior editor Nate Blakeslee, was a “dream team” of water experts from the state. They all took questions about the ups and downs of the state water plan, how agriculture and cities will work out their water differences, and some of the intricacies of Texas law that are holding us back.

The Sky Isn’t Falling, and That’s A Problem

“I think we all accept we have a crisis on our hands,” Jake Silverstein, editor of Texas Monthly, said in his introduction. “But the silver lining is that it has focused more people.” The question before us, he said, is will the great drought of 2011 have the same stimulative effect as the drought of record in the 1950s?

For the rest of the evening, the panel attempted to answer that question, and many related to it. The first hot topic that came up was where exactly all of our water in Texas is going.

“Agriculture all over the world is the highest water user,” panelist Laura Huffman, Texas State Director at the Nature Conservancy, said. Agriculture makes up 60 percent of the water use in Texas, and 70 percent in the world. “The water losses are very high,” she said. “If we can reduce and conserve that, we can recapture the single largest user of water. That should incentivize cities and energy to work with them.”

Blakeslee of Texas Monthly asked an intriguing question. When did people in Texas use more water, in 1974 or in 2009? Nearly everyone thought the answer would be 2009, but in fact it’s 1974. That’s because the primary demand on water at that time was from agriculture, not energy and municipal users.

“Does that mean we don’t really need to build $53 billion projects in state water plan?” Blakeslee asked. If the population has doubled since 1974, and we’re using that little water, is there a crisis?

Robert Puente, director of the San Antonio Water Systems, said no. “In San Antonio we don’t have a crisis,” Puente said. Because of the city’s efforts at conservation, diversifying and managing supply and innovation, they’ve been able to keep water use in check. “We’ve grown 67 percent in 25 years,” Puente said, “and we’re using the same amount of water as we did back then.”

“I believe we do have a crisis in Texas today,” Texas commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples said.”We’ve had $8 billion in agricultural losses and forestry alone. During a drought of record, we don’t have the water resources we need.”

Andrew Sansom, Executive Director of the Texas River Systems Institute at Texas State University, agreed. He sees it as a problem of management. “We’ve given permission for more water to be drawn from our rivers than is actually in them,” Sansom said. And the state has set up two very different regimes for surface water and ground water.

City vs. Country

A recurring theme of the evening was the conflict between Texas’ growing cities and fading agriculture. As the state’s population grows, mostly in metro areas, it’s going to get thirstier.

“A farmer growing just two sections of corn in the panhandle uses as much water as is in every bottle of Ozarka ever year,” moderator Blakeslee of Texas Monthly pointed out. “Downstream of Austin, rice farmers are using three times the amount of water to grow rice as the city of Austin uses in a year.” So are agriculture and municipal users inherently in conflict?

“ I worry about people that try to articulate a simple answer to this question,” Huffman of the Nature Conservancy said. Huffman believes the state water plan already has the answer, recognizing the “obvious” shift of water from agriculture to cities.  “We can’t afford to put them in conflict,” Huffman said. “We will probably get to the point in this state where some crops aren’t growable. But the rice farmer debate is the wrong one,” Huffman said. The more important question is, “how do we get that water back in the system?

“Agriculture takes a lot of hits for how much it uses,” Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples added. “But the use has been constant since the seventies, and the in that time the yields have almost doubled.” Staples said that with better technology, conservation and efficiency, agriculture water use should still be a part of Texas’ water future.

If You Fail to Fund a Plan, Are You Planning to Fail?

“What’s the cost of doing nothing?” Huffman of the Nature Conservancy asked. “It’s $116 billion a year. By 2060, our economy is crashing because business and industry don’t have access to fresh water.”

But there’s the problem of where that money will come from. “You can fund the projects in the water plan without increasing taxes or fees,” said former state senator Kip Averitt. “You will have to divert money from some other source, but I’d submit it’s not that much money. It’s $53 billion over 50 years. To fund the projects ready today, you’re only in the $100-150 million range.”

Agriculture commissioner Todd Staples pointed out that most of the reservoir construction in the sixties and seventies was done without a statewide tax. “Because most [of the projects] were locally funded and sponsored,” Staples said. “There was federal and state participation. There are 4,700 water supply districts in Texas, but the state of Texas doesn’t supply water to just one customer.”

The question also came up about how best to deal with the state’s water laws, which have been criticized as inconsistent and byzantine. Can they be changed?

“That’s a virtually impossible task,” Averitt said. The last time the state enacted meaningful changes in water rights was in the sixties after the drought of record. “That’s when the Legislature finally got jiggy with it,” Averitt said, “But a lot of things have changed since then.”

“We have a great deal of maturity that has to occur with our water laws,” Staples added.

As a closing thought, Sansom of the River Systems Institute called on Texans to think of water differently. “We need to move past the idea of conservation as restraint or sacrifice,” Sansom said, “and instead look at it as a way of generating supply. We need to think of it as another way to provide more water.”

You can learn more about the drought and ask your own questions tonight at a special listening session for our ‘Life By the Drop: Drought. Water and the Future of Texas’ documentary at the Cactus Cafe in Austin.

Life by the Drop: Drought, Water and the Future of Texas 

Tuesday, July 17, 6pm (Doors at 5:30)

The Cactus Café

2247 Guadalupe St, Austin

Free and Open to the Public


And here’s a Storify timeline of tweets from the event:




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