Steps to Improve Texas Water Planning
Our state’s water policies have evolved dramatically over the past 15 years, generally in a positive direction. This is evidenced by the growing acceptance of the importance of water conservation as a means of addressing water demands. However, the current State Water Plan and water planning process do not fully take advantage of water conservation and drought response and fail to adequately address the needs of fish, wildlife, and the environment.
The Texas Living Waters Project partners recommend the State embraces a more strategic and cost-effective approach to meeting critical water needs by improving state water planning in the following ways.
Revise Water Demand Projections
The State needs to refine their traditional approach of basing demand projections on meeting all wet year uses during drought of record. Projections should be revised to reflect actual water needs rather than water “demands,” which may be unrealistic to meet in future drought years. The current method leads to excessive water demand projections, over-planning and excessive cost estimates. Incorporating rational drought management into the water planning process will lead to more realistic and cost effective plans for regions and the state as a whole.
In addition, in developing population and water demand projections, the Texas Water Development Board needs to closely evaluate the relationship between the cost of water and its effect on long-term demand. The current planning process often treats demand as a static concept and does not adjust forecasts to account for rising water prices or changes in patterns of water use beyond basic plumbing code changes.
However, one positive step is incorporation into new water demand projections of savings expected to result from new efficiency standards for clothes washers and dishwashers.
Plan for All Water Needs
The State Water Plan should be revised to include all types of water needs – including the need for water to support the health of our rivers and bays as well as commercial and recreational fishing, river and coastal tourism, and other businesses that depend on healthy and productive rivers and bays for their survival.
Failing to plan to meet those environmental water needs results in an incomplete water plan that threatens our natural heritage. The Texas Water Development Board and the regional water planning groups must recognize and include water for healthy rivers and bays as a use of water they are planning to meet. Currently, the water plans assume, when valuating proposed new water supply projects designed to meet other types of demands, that some level of environmental flow restriction will be included in any new surface water permit to help limit the harm caused. Although that is an appropriate reflection of existing law, it doesn’t begin to assess the extent to which increased use of water under existing permits and projects will harm the health of rivers and bays or what proactive measures are needed to keep them healthy.
To their credit, two regional water planning groups, Region L and Region H, have done some assessment of what river flows and bay inflows might look like in the future if water use occurs as projected in the water plan. However, even those regional planning groups stop short of planning for how to maintain healthy rivers and bays. The relatively new Senate Bill 3 process that results in environmental flow standards adopted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will provide important information that should be incorporated into the next round of planning and beyond. Those flow standards are intended to help answer the question of how much flow is needed to support a sound ecological environment.
However, especially for first two areas to undergo the process—the Sabine and Neches Rivers/Sabine Lake and the Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers/Galveston Bay areas—flow standards adequate to support a sound ecological environment have not been identified or adopted. Accordingly, regional water planning groups in those basins should plan to provide additional flows beyond the minimal amounts identified in the current flow standards. The environmental flow standards adopted for the next two bay and basin areas—the Colorado and Lavaca Rivers/Matagorda Bay and Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission and Aransas Rivers/Mission, Copano, Aransas, and San Antonio Bays areas—include specific criteria designed to support a sound ecological environment.
Consideration of the Energy-Water Nexus
The push for energy efficiency is accelerating, and reliance on non-water-using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power is expanding. In addition, clean air regulations and other factors may lead to the retirement of existing coal-fired power plants and prevent new ones from being constructed, for which water has traditionally been the cooling source. Those coal-fired plants often use much more water than alternative power sources, including natural gas. These trends call into question the projections used in water planning that steam-electric water use—water to generate electricity—will increase at a rapid rate over the next 50 years. Because almost 50% of all U.S. water withdrawals are for power generation, ensuring accurate projections in this area is critical for long-term water planning. Read more about the energy-water nexus in Texas in a 2009 report by the Environmental Defense Fund and The University of Texas at Austin.
Prepare for a Changing Climate
Climate change will likely have an increased impact on traditional water management strategies. The 2012 State Water Plan proposes $53 billion worth of water management strategies, most of which are likely to be adversely impacted by hydrologic changes associated with climate change. The 2012 State Water Plan includes a discussion about future climate variability and acknowledges the need for additional study to better understand likely impacts of a changing climate on water availability in various parts of Texas. However, it is unclear from that discussion if such studies will be undertaken in order to better inform planning assumptions.
The Texas Water Development Board and the regional water planning groups need to address the issue of climate change and prepare state and regional water plans based on an acknowledgement that:
- Climate change is happening and it may have a profound effect on our water resources.
- Addressing climate change requires creative and innovative approaches not bound by traditional assumptions, and water supply strategies should be reviewed for susceptibility to climate impacts.
- Climate change may significantly affect population and growth trends.
- Realistic projections of the impacts of climate change and of options for responding to them are essential and must be adequately funded.
Read more about climate change in Texas in the 2006 Environmental Defense report Fair Warning: Global Warming and the Lone Star State.
Adopt a Strategic Funding Approach
The State should establish clear metrics for determining which water infrastructure projects in the State Water Plan merit State financial assistance. Whatever the ultimate source of state funds, it is essential to establish an effective screening process for efficient use of money. The metrics should reflect the following principles:
- Priority consideration should go to water supply projects designed to meet near-term needs that cannot reasonably be met through improved water efficiency measures.
- Prioritization criteria should reward projects that are highly cost effective, include measures to ensure the new water supply will be used efficiently, and result in low environmental impact.
- There must be a firm commitment for substantial funding from local and regional water supply interests and a demonstration that full funding from those interests is not feasible (absent extenuating circumstances).
- In the case of groundwater projects, assistance should only be provided to projects clearly shown not to indirectly impair existing water supply sources, including spring flows or river flows.
In addition, any ongoing state water funding mechanism should dedicate a reasonable amount of funds to implement voluntary, on-the-ground measures to help keep rivers flowing and provide freshwater inflows to bays and estuaries. Any funding mechanism should also ensure that one-third of available funds are actually used for the implementation of effective water conservation programs and water reuse projects, with no more than half of that money allocated to reuse.
House Bill 4, passed in the spring 2013 and approved by voters that fall, calls for devoting at least one-fifth of funding for conservation and reuse. That is a good start, but a concerted effort will be needed to make that proposed allocation a reality and to ensure that programs to improve actual water efficiency are not short-changed in favor of reuse projects.