Faced with evaporating reservoirs and drying groundwater wells, communities throughout Texas are reaching for innovative water supply solutions.
Ideas that were once far removed from the prevailing strategies of reservoir and groundwater development are moving to the forefront of the water supply discussion. This represents a significant shift in water planning.
Historically, communities have relied on conventional water supply projects such as reservoirs, groundwater wells and conveyance systems to meet their needs.
When Texas began water planning following a withering drought in the 1950’s, these projects promised lasting water supplies to a growing state.
In the decades following the 1950’s drought, more than 100 new reservoirs were built in Texas as some communities expanded their reliance on groundwater resources.
Fast forward to 2014, when drought, population growth and regulation have strained the promise of these conventional water supplies.
Reservoirs have their hydrological limits: once drained, they cannot refill without rain. This is particularly true in west and central Texas, where the levels of major reservoirs remain critically low due to lack of adequate rainfall.
Subsidence, depletion and regulation limit the availability of groundwater. Plus moving water across this state has been curtailed by state permitting requirements.
Faced with these limitations, local water planners are looking beyond the reservoir and well toward innovative water supply solutions such as conservation, direct reuse and desalination.
Credit for this shift belongs partly to advances in water treatment technology and to creative thinking on how we use water.
Water conservation — rarely mentioned in water plans 50 years ago — ranks prominently today. Having less water has prompted widespread interest among agricultural and domestic users in programs that conserve and wisely use this limited resource.
Similar attention is being paid to conservation’s cousin, direct water reuse. Water that goes down one household’s drain is treated and recycled for another home’s gain.
Wichita Falls, feeling the pinch of lasting exceptional drought conditions, will bring a direct water reuse plant online later this year. Recognizing the value of recycled water, and applying the same technology that has hydrated astronauts for decades, other communities are looking to expand their supply portfolios with reuse.
Our dry times have also spurred greater interest in desalination as a drought-resistant supply strategy. While gulf-side communities including Corpus Christi and Brownsville are exploring seawater desalination, cities further inland are turning to brackish groundwater as a viable resource.
San Antonio has plans for a brackish groundwater desalination plant that, once built, will be larger than the nation’s current foremost plant in El Paso.
As Texas moves forward in this new era of water planning, state policymakers should avoid regulations affecting these water supply strategies beyond what is necessary to ensure clean and safe water treatment.
Moreover, lawmakers should not mandate the use of one water supply solution over another. This decision must rest with local decision makers who best understand their community’s needs.
If anything, this drought has imparted the lesson that communities must diversify their water supply portfolios.