Reports of an impending water crisis tend to dominate the news, and it is true that there are global, national, regional, and state water challenges ahead of us. This week, however, brought some good water news for Texans.
The state’s water planning and financing agency – the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) – revealed revised water demand projections for Texas that will drive the preparation of updated regional and state water plans. Essentially, these projections inform which water projects the state will invest in during upcoming years, so that there will be enough water supply to meet Texans’ water demands. What will come as a surprise to many Texans is that the new projections foresee a substantial decrease in water demands by 2070 over what was projected in the previous (2017) state water plan.
The Texas Water Plan estimates water demands over a 50-year planning horizon, currently stretching from 2020 to 2070. The 2017 plan projected that Texas would require 21.6 million acre-feet of water per year by the decade beginning 2070 in order to meet municipal, manufacturing, agricultural, mining, and steam-electric power generation demands for water. But the latest projections are that the demand will be no more than 19.2 million acre-feet per year, an annual decrease of 2.4 million acre-feet.
Is this based on anticipated downward trends in population growth or decreasing manufacturing output? No. TWDB projects the state population to increase from over 29 million in 2020 to over 55 million by 2070, and sees the manufacturing sector continuing to perform strongly over the next 50 years.
A win for Texas
The decrease in estimated water demand levels is the result of continuing reductions in per capita water use (the average amount of water a Texan uses on a daily basis) through more efficient water fixtures and appliances, enhancements in energy efficiency (which hold down water needs), and the growing precision of methodologies for projecting future water use.
Contrast this latest view of the future with the scenario from the 1968 Texas Water Plan, which projected that by 2020 the total state water requirements would be approximately 30 million acre-feet per year. In reality, the current estimate for state water demands in 2020 is now 17.7 million acre-feet annually. Even by 2070, Texas is not expected to need anywhere near the amount of water that planners in the 1960s thought the state would require by 2020!
The new outlook for water is no accident, however. The state has made great strides in water conservation due to the hard work of many people and organizations – the Texas Living Waters Project, TWDB itself, legislative leaders who passed laws enhancing water conservation, corporate leaders who recognized that manufacturing more products with less water contributes to the bottom line, farmers who have begun to use water more efficiently to produce their crops, and – most of all – Texans who have conserved water in their own homes.
Texas’ lower projected water demands are thanks to the many Texans who conserve water in their own homes. One powerful way homeowners can cut down on their water use is by watering their lawns no more than twice a week.
But there is more work to be done. Despite our progress, Texas has only scratched the surface of the potential to become more efficient in our use of water. As the Texas Living Waters Project reported in the 2016 Texas Water Conservation Scorecard, there are many communities throughout the state that are doing relatively little to reduce per capita water consumption. That’s why municipal water use is continuing to increase, even though at a lower rate than might be anticipated based on the rate of population growth.
Those cities and water districts who have done their part to curb water use are driving the trend toward lower per capita water use, but not every community is doing their share. Even many water suppliers that practice water conservation could do more.
The next steps
Some of the water conservation measures that provide the biggest opportunities for Texas to curb unnecessary water use and waste include the following, among other measures:
- Reasonable limitations on outdoor landscape watering that will help shave peak water demands, which drive infrastructure development (see the new Water Conservation by the Yard report for the potential to save water through these measures);
- Reduction in water loss caused by leaking pipelines in municipal distribution systems;
- Encouragement of graywater systems in new commercial and other buildings;
- Capture and use of air conditioning condensate and other alternative water sources; and,
- Expansion of rainwater collection and the use of “green infrastructure” (low impact land development that retains natural drainage, for example).
Moreover, preparation and implementation – including on a regional basis – of more effective drought contingency plans will allow us to better manage challenged water resources during dry times.
This is not to say that Texas will not continue to have water infrastructure needs and some new water sources. Water demands and infrastructure needs vary considerably across regions of the state, and certain water sources may need to be replaced with more innovative and sustainable sources.
But the narrowing gap between available water supplies and future water demands provides an opportunity to close that gap by prioritizing management rather than development of water resources. This approach will help sustain both our economy and our environment. Texans will be able to use cost-effective conservation to reduce infrastructure costs and stretch both our water supplies and our dollars, and that is good news indeed!
We’re making good progress, but we need your help.
For 17 years, Texas Living Waters Project has helped Texans use water more efficiently. We do this so that we will always have enough fresh water – for our economy, our wildlife, and our kids. With your support, we can lead Texas to a strong future by helping our state use our precious waters wisely and responsibly.