Texas swimming holes need One Water

By Sarah Richards, water program officer, The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation

The redbuds are blooming, a sure sign that spring is here with summer heat soon to follow. Summer heat means summer days filled with the gasps and laughter of children as they cannonball into cold, refreshing spring-fed swimming holes like Jacob’s Well, San Solomon Springs, or Barton Springs.

The future of our beloved Texas icons is in jeopardy as population growth and climate change stretch thin our precious water resources and complicate water management during our famous weather extremes. The current water management model in Texas does not adequately promote sustainable water management or, quite frankly, place a priority on sustaining the needs of our environment.

These challenges, however, are not unique to Texas.

Across the United States and throughout the world, community leaders, water planners, and policymakers are wrestling with how best to manage water to maximize economic growth and social equity without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. Some are rethinking our traditional urban water management practices and working to advance a more resilient strategy called integrated water management, or One Water.

One Water promotes the management of all water within a specific geography — drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and greywater — as a single resource, a resource that must be managed holistically, viably and sustainably.

While a coordinated approach to development and management of water, land and related resources is not new, current policies and practices in Texas are severely out of sync. Clear leadership is needed to drive a paradigm shift.

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation commissioned the report Advancing One Water in Texas to outline a path forward. For change-makers committed to our natural resources, I offer three observations about a One Water approach and invite you to learn more:

1. Community decisions, not utility decisions.

A One Water approach asks a community to consider and manage all water holistically. The days of feeding vast Texas lawns with pure, clean drinking water should be a practice of the past. Funneling stormwater into concrete culverts should stop as soon as possible and that water should be used to meet community water needs. And, municipal hierarchies that put the city water utility at the forefront of water supply decisions, independent of the stormwater manager or even the parks department or energy utility, should become a thing of the past.

Instead, a community, and all the city management branches that impact water, should consider all water available in their system and all water needs alongside one another.

2. Collaboration is the essential building block. 

Under the current system of management, different streams of water are managed in almost complete isolation from one another. Collaboration across these silos is critical for making decisions that are truly in the best interest of the community and water resources. However, collaboration doesn’t come easily. It requires committed leadership, commonsense, political capital, a diversity of participants and institutions, plus the right supporting tools and techniques.

3. It’s not going to be easy, but if anyone can do it, Texans can.

A transition to a One Water approach and the collaboration it depends upon can be a challenging journey for our communities, but will yield big rewards. One Water is challenged by the inertia that comes with any systemic change, particularly a system that’s been the default practice for decades.

Yet it’s because of the leadership and tenacity of a few innovators that we see examples of One Water by state agencies and in cities across Texas. Texas is the national leader in water reuse. The State Water Implementation Fund of Texas, with its 20 percent conservation set-aside, puts real money on the table for conservation. The City of Austin is developing a 100-year integrated water resource plan; cities like Arlington and Mesquite are embracing green infrastructure in new and innovative ways; and Fort Worth is taking resource recovery to new heights.


The Mitchell Foundation is committed to supporting Texas’ transition to One Water and sustaining our state’s water resources. With resilient, opportunistic, and determined Texans working together at the local and state level, a paradigm shift will occur, helping us to sustain our treasured natural resources, from Big Bend to the East Texas Piney Woods.

Please join the Mitchell Foundation and Texas Living Waters Project for a special One Water webinar series this April and May to learn together and explore why a One Water approach is right for communities across Texas.

Click here for more information and to sign up for the One Water for Texas webinar series.


Sarah Richards is the water program officer for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. This column is an excerpt prepared for Texas Living Waters Project from the foundation’s new report, Advancing One Water in Texas.


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The Texas Living Waters Project is transforming the way we manage water so there will be enough for our wildlife, our economy, and our kids. Forever.


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