TEXAS VIEW: Texas can’t ignore extreme weather in planning future water supply

THE POINT: The state must invest in infrastructure and conservation efforts.

Just this past summer, broken water lines triggered a 13-day boil water notice in Laredo and a major water outage in Odessa, and Zapata almost ran out of water after reservoirs reached dangerously low levels. Texas is in dire need of better water infrastructure.

But to invest more wisely, state officials need to improve Texas’ long-term water plans. A sense of urgency should also apply to water conservation efforts.

The good news is that there is federal money available to spend in water infrastructure, and policymakers are hopeful that the state Legislature will invest more, too. The bad news is that water is evaporating faster than ever, and the state’s dependence on surface water supplies such as rivers and reservoirs is becoming riskier, as the Texas Tribune recently reported.

The rainy weather this week may obscure the fact that in the summer North Texas had a 67-day streak without any measurable precipitation. Then, in August, we experienced a storm described as a “one in a thousand years” event, with some parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area flooded with more than 10 inches of rain in less than 24 hours.

This is the type of extreme weather data that the state must incorporate into its planning, said Jeremy Mazur, senior policy adviser for the think tank Texas2036 who directs research around water issues.

The Texas Water Development Board, the entity in charge of preparing the state’s water plan, factors a 1950s drought to determine future water availability. With extreme weather events becoming more common, the board needs a new approach.

Climate change is already here. Higher temperatures exacerbate the effects of drought and cause less rain to flow into rivers and streams. Water evaporation accelerates.

With increasing population across the state and perennial drought conditions, Texas needs an all-of-the-above approach to water planning, including new reservoirs, seawater desalination projects, purifying wastewater and aquifer storage.

Mazur points to another problem, and that is water loss because of leaky pipes all over the state, especially in rural areas. He said this accounts for the loss of about 570,000 acre-feet of water annually. That is the equivalent of Possum Kingdom Lake.

As reference, one acre-foot of water can provide water to three households in a year.

Tackling this issue would make a huge difference. In small, rural communities, 50% to 60% of water leaks out pipes before reaching consumers, Mazur said.

This situation is unacceptable, and it underscores why all levels of government, from city halls to the statehouse, must invest in conservation. This will require clear policies, more cooperation and funding.

There’s already some money ready for the taking. Through the federal infrastructure bill, Texas will receive $2 billion in the next five years for water infrastructure. Mazur told us this is just a starting point to address the bigger problem. He estimates that the state needs to invest between $60 to $70 billion in the next 20 years to keep up with population growth.

We urge the state Legislature to treat water planning with the seriousness and thoroughness it deserves. There will be a slew of problems to solve, but the state needs to make water a priority. Texans’ well-being and livelihoods depend on it.

The Dallas Morning News