Conservation and Desalination: An Alternative Prescription For Texas Water Management

texas boat drought epa drinking water infrastructure report

The nation needs $384.2 billion dollars in water infrastructure and development to meet its needs for clean drinking water, according to a recent EPA report to Congress. The figure reflects the fact that the bulk of the nation’s water systems are approaching the end of their life expectancy. The authors of Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment (pfd) call ours the “rehabilitation and replacement era.”

Among all the states found wanting, Texas ranks second with a stated $33.9 billion in needed investments by 2030 to safely supply water to a rising population. Only California’s $44.5 billion came in higher.

Now the Texas Legislature has prepared the way for a constitutional amendment (public vote is in November) that would pinch $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to create a mechanism for low-interest loans under a newly created State Water Implementation Fund for Texas Fund. The fund would make possible $30 billion in projects over 50 years, according to the Governor’s office.

The challenges are not insignificant: the Supreme Court has locked North Texas out of the Red River Compact, the Rio Grande is proving unreliable as fights over Mexico’s “water debt” heat up, and the Ogallala Aquifer is retreating out of the Panhandle at an historically quick clip.

While the state water plan calls for construction of 26 major reservoirs at a cost of $13 billion, some are looking deeper than rivers and reservoirs for an answer. I spoke to Glenn Longly, director of the Edwards Aquifer Research and Data Center in San Marcos at Texas State University, recently for his take on the future of Texas water needs.

glenn longleyWhere do you see the Texas of tomorrow meeting its water needs?

I don’t think it’s going to be new lakes and reservoirs. It’s going to ultimately be desalinization, probably mostly of groundwater. They talk about de-salting Gulf of Mexico water and bringing it to [Central Texas], but the fact is it will be less expensive to desalinize groundwater. It won’t cost as much to de-salt it and you won’t have to carry it so far in pipelines — that’s where the expense comes in.

There’s a lot of evaporation…

Yeah. That’s part of the problem of reservoirs. Obviously the best thing that can be done is improve water conservation and improve water-use efficiency, whatever the uses that are being made of it in a region.

But is that totally contingent on price-point?

I think that has something to do with it. One of the big problems we have in Texas is we have fairly comprehensive surface-water law but our groundwater law is still based on the old rule of capture, old English law. We treat them differently. In the Edwards [Aquifer] it really is a disaster trying to manage one one way and the other another way. It needs to be a comprehensive, coordinated treatment of surface and groundwater together, because what’s surface water before it recharges then becomes groundwater and then when it comes out of the spring it becomes surface water again. And when it’s surface water it’s state water. And when it’s groundwater it belongs to the landowner, with modifications, based on whatever water districts are in place in the area. We need a way to manage surface and groundwater conjunctively, and that’s not being done.

No one has been running that up in the Legislature?

Not really. It really isn’t being done. I think the time will come, but change comes very slowly in this state, as you know. Conservatism has its values. Don’t get me wrong: I have a ranch, I came out of agriculture, and I certainly understand the needs of the rural population. But I also know we need to look at water as a common resource for the good of all the citizens of this state and not just those people who have to have the opportunity to have property and can take advantage of the current law. We don’t do that in other natural resources. We control deer and hunting and fish and fishing. It’s a natural resource. It needs to be held for the common good.

Where do you see the most egregious examples of that conflict.

Right now one of the most severe situations is occurring in the Valley with the Rio Grande and this business between Mexico and the United States. Mexico is not meeting this obligation under the treaty from the ’40s. A major tributary of the Rio Grande that comes in around Presidio is the major flow of the Rio Grande after El Paso. The people in the Valley are getting ready to be really badly hurt, both cities, municipal users, and agricultural users.

Is it particularly worse now? I’ve heard that complaint for a long time.

Oh, yeah. It is. It is getting really bad. I just drove over Lake Amistad and it’s down, you would not believe, it’s almost back down in the old river bed. It’s lower than it’s ever been since it filled. The Rio Grande is a major resource for cities downstream both in Mexico and in Texas and those people in the Valley that use it for irrigation. There’s gong to be conflicts, more and more. There’s places in the state, Big Spring and Brownwood, that are already looking at using reuse water for drinking water.

That blew me away when I read that Big Spring was moving forward, cleaning up their sewage into drinking water.

They don’t have a choice. They don’t have any other water resource. And look at the Ogallala, they say it’s been dropping faster in the last year or two than its dropped historically. We knew it was coming. The farmers up there are going to be dry-land farmers before too long, mainly because they won’t be able to pump it out of the ground: the cost of the energy to pump it out will be prohibitive.

What about the flows to the Gulf?

I suspect at the Nueces River bay and estuary has some issues. There certainly are at the Colorado and Guadalupe, San Antonio Bay. I suspect all up and down the coast there are issues. Most of the return flow that you have left is wastewater flow. And that’s fine as long as it’s well treated and so forth and that you get sufficient amounts of it. The problem is you don’t have enough of it because cities are more and more finding ways to use their reuse water. The city of San Marcos, they sell a lot of their reuse water to this power plant for cooling water. Any time it doesn’t go back into the stream that exacerbates the problem.

So, your prescription for water use in the state? It sounds like efficiency is number one.

Conservation, right. Using it efficiently. And then, ideally, the conjunctive use of surface and groundwater. You need to be able to manage the water in a conjunctive manner. And I think desal is going to be a major answer to much of the future, because we do have some extensive saline aquifers. And then along the Gulf Coast, the Gulf is a potential major source of that. It’s not without its own problems. It takes a lot of energy to do that.