Atlantic Cities

A Thirsty Future for Texas

A Thirsty Future for Texas
Joshua Lott / Reuters

As Texas struggles through the worst single-year drought in its recorded history, the state is looking uneasily toward its future. Rainfall is down, groundwater sources are being depleted, and the state is growing. All these conditions combine to envision a not-so-distant future in which Texas won’t be able to meet its water needs, according to warnings in a draft of the 2012 state water plan.

The plan, “Water for Texas,” is published every five years by the Texas Water Development Board. With three of the ten most populous cities in the nation, Texas is a large user of water. And if recent growth rates are an indication, the state’s population can be expected to continue to rise. Between 2000 and 2010, Houston grew by 7.5 percent, San Antonio by 16 percent, Austin by 20.4 percent and Fort Worth by 38.6 percent.

The report notes that the state’s population is expected to increase by 21 million people over the next 50 years, bringing the total state population to about 46.3 million. Over that same amount of time, the state’s water supply is expected to drop 10 percent.

The state currently uses about 18 million acre-feet of water a year, which is already one million more than the state’s existing infrastructure and sources can provide during a drought like this one. And demand is on the rise. Water usage is expected to increase to 22 million acre-feet a year in 2060, but the state will only be able to produce about 15.6 million acre-feet, if projections are right. That’s a shortfall of 6.4 million acre-feet of water, the equivalent of a third of the water currently used by the state’s people, industry, and agriculture.

The draft water plan has more than 500 specific water projects from regional planning groups that, if implemented, would reduce usage by about 9 million acre-feet by 2060. That would make up for the shortfall, but at a cost of $53 billion, $26.9 billion of which would be needed in the form of state assistance.

By 2060, population growth is expected to make municipal use the top draw of water statewide. It’s estimated that municipal water demand will require supplies of 8.4 million acre-feet. Agriculture, currently the highest use of water, is expected to see a gradual reduction in demand, dropping from 10 million acre-feet today to 8.3 million acre-feet in 2060.

But the impact could be more than dry mouths and fields. The current drought – the worst single year drought the state has ever seen – was a key element of this latest devastating wildfire season that has seen more than 5,600 square miles burned. (For some context on what 5,600 square miles actually means, take a look at this nice set of visualizations by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal that overlays the physical extent of the fire on scale maps of the biggest cities in the U.S.)

The plan recommends a fleet of mitigation methods, including acquisition of new reservoir sites and transfers of surface water to higher-need regions. The report also recommends that all public utilities conduct water loss audits every year, instead of every five years. Keeping closer tabs on water thefts and leaks is one way to keep water without worrying about finding a new source of it. But sourcing water is essentially the main problem for Texas. The Ogallala aquifer is being depleted, precipitation is down, and reservoirs are silting. The water plan calls for the state to create a deposit of funding that can be used to make loans to local water utilities. With $26.9 billion needed in state assistance to achieve the $53 billion in water projects the plan recommends, the future of water in Texas will rely on the state legislature to develop some creative funding mechanisms soon.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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