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The Economist: Water worries

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The author of this entry is responsible for this content, which is not edited by the Wilson County News or
Dr. M. Ray Perryman
July 24, 2014 | 3,272 views | Post a comment

One of the biggest challenges facing Texas is the supply of fresh water. In some parts of the state, there have been notable improvements since the historic drought of 2011, but in others, the situation remains critical.

Furthermore, even if the current drought conditions resolve, there is still the issue of increasing the water supply enough to deal with future population and economic growth. By 2040, my latest forecast indicates the addition of more than 13.6 million new residents and almost $2.0 trillion in real gross product, resulting in a need for more water. Finding answers won’t be easy (or cheap), but the alternative is far worse.

The latest report from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB--the state agency charged with the task of monitoring the water situation and planning for future needs) is a case of bad news-good news. First, the bad news. Reservoirs in much of the state remain alarmingly empty. The High Plains (Panhandle) region is the worst off, with conservation storage standing at less than 2%, and a big swath of West Texas falls into either the 22%- or 39%-of-capacity categories. The low levels are also affecting major urban areas, with the South Central area (which includes Austin) standing at 48%. Southern region reservoirs are only 36% full.

Groundwater, the other major source of fresh water, is also in short supply. The state’s nine major aquifers comprise about 60% of water used. Nearly 80% of the water is for irrigation, with most of it coming from the Ogallala Aquifer (which in Texas lies beneath much of the Panhandle and southward). Unfortunately, the Ogallala has been dropping quite rapidly for decades, with recharge far too slow to offset withdrawals. The current pattern cannot continue forever, and major disruptions to the economies (and families) of these areas is inevitable if the wells are drained.

Metropolitan areas also rely on groundwater for about 36% of water needs. A monitor well in San Antonio measured the Edwards Aquifer at 90.91 feet below the surface, just barely above the level at which Stage 3 critical management restrictions kick in. Stage 3 mandates a 35% reduction in annual pumping amounts allowed for those with permits (including municipal water suppliers); Stage 3 measures were in force earlier this year before rain allowed some relief. If levels keep dropping, so will the amounts of water which can be withdrawn. At least the Edwards Aquifer does tend to recharge quickly with rainfall (unlike the Ogallala), so a few soaking rains can make a big difference.

There is (fortunately) a little bit of good news. Rain in late May did generate some runoff, boosting total reservoir storage by more than 240,000 acre-feet over the month. June was also about 627,000 acre-feet better than a year prior. Streamflow conditions are near or above normal in all but the westernmost portion of the state, and a few monitor wells indicate rising groundwater levels.

Only a few inches of rain would make a lot of difference in drought levels as measured by the NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), but it would take up to a foot of rainfall in a month to get back to normal in some areas, and that’s very unlikely. Even then, reservoir and groundwater levels would likely still be lower than desirable.

Clearly, action is imperative, and the wheels are in motion. There are currently meetings going on across the state to allow for public input on regional water plans; you can also send comments to the TWDB. The TWDB is holding sessions related to the new funds authorized by the Texas Legislature and voters: SWIFT (State Water Implementation Fund for Texas) and SWIRFT (State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas). These funds allow for state financial assistance for water supplies, and were provided a one-time $2 billion infusion from the Rainy Day Fund to get started.

In the meantime, communities are struggling to find any and all ways to come up with more water. Pipelines have been run to pipe water in to some cities. Wichita Falls is now using treated and retreated wastewater to meet between a third and half of daily demand, and Big Spring also has a reuse program. Odessa has had one for decades. Moreover, Brownwood and El Paso have reuse plans under development. Such programs will likely become more common over time. Desalinization projects are even being considered in some areas.

As the Texas Water Development Board puts it, the goal is sustainable and affordable water. Major work is required to get there, and the longer we put it off, the harder it will be. The SWIFT and SWIRFT funds are a good start, but a way to generate far more money is needed. There is a tendency to take water for granted up until the point where a shortage starts, but a look at the underlying patterns in supplies and needs will likely disabuse you of the notion that the status quo is acceptable. Solutions will require major investments but must be found. The stakes are simply too high, both for quality of life and the economy.

Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group ( He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.
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