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Conservation is conservative approach to solving Texas water problems

By Sharlene Leurig
Austin American-Statesman
Testimony to the drought of 2011 is still all around us. On the heels of the drought, the idea of seeding a fund to meet the next 50 years of Texas’ water supply needs is a hard idea to pass up.

Testimony to the drought of 2011 is still all around us — dried-up reservoirs in West Texas, purposeless docks on the parched Pedernales River. On the heels of the drought, the idea of seeding a fund to meet the next 50 years of Texas’ water supply needs is a hard idea to pass up. But before we pluck that money from the state’s rainy day fund, let’s take a second look at what the state’s water needs really are, and how we ensure that state funds aren’t squandered in speculative water development.

Testimony to the drought of 2011 is still all around us — dried-up reservoirs in West Texas, purposeless docks on the parched Pedernales River. On the heels of the drought, the idea of seeding a fund to meet the next 50 years of Texas’ water supply needs is a hard idea to pass up. But before we pluck that money from the state’s rainy day fund, let’s take a second look at what the state’s water needs really are, and how we ensure that state funds aren’t squandered in speculative water development.

Before we look 50 years into the future, it may be helpful to look 50 years into the past. In 1968 the specter of the past decade’s drought and the vision of the state’s spectacular growth shaped an audacious plan to move 13 million acre-feet of water across Texas from the Mississippi River Basin. The project would have required the equivalent of six nuclear power plants, about 40 percent of the state’s energy load at the time. The plan, which assumed a prodigious need for water, 32 million acre-feet by 2020, was wisely scrapped.

Fast-forward 50 years — today, Texas uses roughly 17 million acre-feet of water. That’s a hefty margin of error. Yet imagine if we had built the Mississippi diversion, and financed it on the backs of taxpayers across the state. What else would Texans have had to forgo to pay for the water they never would have needed?

Now the Legislature is weighing a decision to divert $1 to $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to implement the 2010 State Water Plan — a $53 billion dollar set of capital projects, only half of which local planning regions say they can afford. The good news is that the Legislature’s investment would seed a revolving fund that could grow more than 10 times in size with limited need for further state allocations.

Yet today’s water plan, and the $53 billion price tag for new supply, is just as much a fantasy as the 1968 plan, based upon projections of future water use unlikely to ever come true.

The simple truth is that the amount of water we use depends on the price we pay for it. This was easy to overlook when federal spending built the majority of our reservoirs and treatment plants. But today the full cost of water services will be paid for by water users. And as the cost of water goes up, Texans will surely want to manage their water budgets by using less. The problem is, if local entities finance too big a system, can they afford to have their customers cut back?

On top of that, new supply is only a portion of the total capital investment Texas will need to make into its water infrastructure in the coming decades. The total price tag of State Water Plan is closer to $230 billion, mostly driven by aging infrastructure that will need to be replaced. Those costs will be largely left to local entities.

So how do we meet Texans’ water needs without breaking the bank? There are a few rules of thumb that should guide our policymakers:

  • Maximize water conservation and efficiency. These are the lowest-cost options for meeting future needs. With 50 to 80 percent of municipal water going to outdoor watering, smart irrigation systems and lawn replacement programs hold great promise for curbing water use and achieving savings. For evidence of how much efficiency can get you, look at San Antonio, which has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades while keeping total water use flat.
  • Prioritize public funds to meet near-term public health needs. The State Water Plan unnecessarily frontloads spending to meet needs for a future too distant to plan for with any certainty. Projects that are needed to ensure safe drinking water and which cannot be met through cost-effective conservation programs should be those that receive funding.
  • Leverage state and local funds to attract private capital. Even if state funds can scale to $26 billion, local governments will be hard pressed to float enough debt to finance the remainder of the 2010 Water Plan. Private capital can help to meet Texas’ water needs by building new water supplies, but also by creating water savings in industry, agriculture and leaky distribution systems that waste the water we have today.

The drought taught us that water is a limited resource, but so are our public funds — let’s use them wisely.

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