As its population grows, Texas worries about water supply

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

The state is plagued by outdated treatment plants, aging infrastructure and increasing drought.

About 1,000 people flock to the Lone Star State every day, drawn mainly by the promise of abundant jobs. The state’s population is expected to double to more than 50 million people by 2050.

And that’s the problem: while there may a torrent of employment opportunities awaiting the new arrivals, officials are worried about whether there’ll be enough water to slake their thirst, according to an Associated Press story published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Texas has always been drought prone. El Paso, for instance, gets only about 9 inches of rain annually. Both droughts and floods in the state have been worsening as the climate warms and more extreme weather patterns take their toll.

Water experts are trying to determine how resilient the state’s water infrastructure is in the face of this. The system may be more fragile than it was once thought to be. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, more than 200 public water systems shut down or warned customers to boil their tap water. Months later, 3,700 Texans still lacked access to safe drinking water. And in 2013, 30 towns were within six months of running out of water as a prolonged drought continued to grip the state.

“The state is growing so fast that we’re constantly playing catch-up when it comes to building resilient water supplies,” Robert Mace, executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University was quoted as saying. “The question is: when the bad times come will there be enough water for everybody?”

Even so, some Texas cities are seen as models, having planned years in advance to keep supplies flowing. El Paso, which has about 700,000 people living in its desert terrain invites international groups wanting to learn more about the innovative facilities that are located there, such as the largest inland desalination plant in the U.S. San Antonio launched its own desalination plant in 2017 and in 2020 intends to begin importing water from a well field 140 miles away. This will give the area a dozen different sources of water for some 2.5 million people.

But overall, the state is falling behind. Although it updates its water strategy every five years based on a 50-year outlook, that effort runs into infrastructure problems such as aging water lines, outdated treatment plants and smaller utilities that are focused on their own interests ahead of regional ones.

These and other factors were at play when Texas cities and utilities in 2015 issued 1,550 boil-water advisories, up from about 1,100 in 2012 and 650 in 2008, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In 2002, the state was lagging in meeting water demands by 2.4 million acre-feet at the height of severe drought, he said, and now the state is 4.7 million acre-feet behind. (An acre-foot is equivalent to 1 foot of water across an acre of land.)

“We’re actually falling more behind for the big one, the repeat of the drought of record,” Mace says.

Smaller communities “are the ones really struggling,” Mace is quoted as saying. Many of these small towns don’t have the customer base to afford a revamped water supply without big hike in water bills. Complicating that is the fact that many of these communities have utility providers that water experts say are risk-averse and reluctant to embrace new technology.

Robert Paterson is an associate professor at the University of Texas with expertise in growth management and sustainable community development. He says Texas trails other states when it comes to broad regional planning that incorporates water needs, land use and other aims. He warns that watersheds don’t care about boundaries.

“To have it all fragmented from city to city is really problematic and very wasteful,” Paterson says in the story.

Texas Water Development Board seems to be listening. The agency, which coordinates water planning and strategy in Texas, recently made a change by no longer basing long-term strategy on political or city boundaries, according to Temple McKinnon, its director of water use, projections and planning, the story reports. The focus now is on the needs and projections of water providers.

“Converting to utility-based planning has been a herculean effort,” McKinnon acknowledged.

The work is no easier for water providers, who must somehow gather the necessary monies to deliver a plentiful amount of safe, potable water. They’re attempting to do this through conservation programs, groundwater and surface water supplies, reservoirs, water reuse and other means.

“There’s not a silver bullet, more like a silver machine gun, in the sense of many different strategies that can be employed to meet the state’s demands,” Mace says in the article.