TEXAS VIEW: Houston needs to prepare for drought

By Houston Chronicle

In Genesis, Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of withered and dried up grain devouring ripe heads as a reliable drought forecast. Then with unusual foresight, Pharaoh decided to prepare in advance for the expected shortage of water. With Joseph in charge of planning, Pharaoh’s people were ready for the lean years when they came to pass.

Although Joseph may be the only person to have predicted a drought’s exact duration accurately in advance, Pharaoh shouldn’t be the last leader to listen and proactively prepare for a shortage of water.

The long hot days of summer are bearing down on us and if history is any guide, the next drought right around the corner. Mayor Sylvester Turner should act now to appoint a commission of civic leaders, including appropriate representatives from the city, environmental groups and the business community such as the Greater Houston Partnership and the Center for Houston’s Future who could recommend policies to curb excessive water usage and who would help educate residents as to their benefits.

These policies could include conservation rate structuring and limits on the number of days residents can irrigate their lawns along with incentives for residents to convert turf grass to native landscaping.

While civil engineers with experience in construction of water projects should be part of the group, they shouldn’t drive the conversation.

But Houstonians don’t have to wait for the city to act. Civic groups, neighborhood associations and individuals can heed the lesson from Genesis and get prepared on their own. The simplest, most cost-effective and least painful way for most people to contribute to water conservation is to cut down on unnecessary irrigation of lawns and green space. Lowered consumption not only helps save our rivers and streams, but it pares back water bills, and in the long run, curtails the need for expensive water treatment and processing plants.

Less irrigation doesn’t even require a sacrifice of civic pride in lawns as studies show that homeowners have a tendency to overwater landscapes by as much as two to three times the amount of water needed. Currently in Texas, the amount of water that single family households use to water their lawns is staggering: it could fill 590,000 football fields with one foot of water, according to Water Conservation by the Yard, a report prepared by Texas Living Waters Project, a collaborative effort of Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter and National Wildlife Federation.

Outdoor watering restrictions were widely implemented across the state during the peak of the 2011 drought, but only a handful of cities kept the restrictions in place after the long awaited rain starting falling, including Fort Worth, Austin, and Dallas, according to the report. Even in non-drought periods, these cities continue to see reductions in outdoor water use. They’ve also succeeded in elevating the conversation around the use of native plants which are adapted to survive on less rainfall.

Based on the 2017 State Water Plan, this single water conservation strategy would be highly effective, and the municipal savings made possible would meet between 43 and 91 percent of Texas municipal water needs in 2020, according to the report.

We’re truly lucky to live in a sea of green. But we can’t take our area’s comparative water wealth for granted. Due to overdevelopment, population growth, and climate change, Cape Town South Africa is expected to run out of water this summer, with other cities around the world expected to follow suit.

Let’s not blow our opportunity to continue to thrive by squandering water and necessitating massive water projects. Our city should start preparing for the future now by figuring out more strategies to reduce water waste.