2011-09-28 / Opinion & Columns


Water: We take it for granted – cheap, easily available but...
Dav e M cNeely
Political Columnist

Gov. Rick Perry called for Texans to pray for rain a couple months ago, but either it didn’t work, or God’s aim was a few states off.

The water shortage in Texas can certainly use some prayers, and maybe even some rain dances. But it’s going to take more than that – much more.

That was the conclusion Saturday of panelists at a session called “The Coming Crisis Over Water.”

When the so-called “Drought of Record” occurred in the 1950’s, lasting seven years, there was considerably less pressure on Texas’ water resources, said Laura Huffman, executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas.

Back then, there were 10 million people in Texas. Now, she said, the population is 25 million.

“There are a lot more straws in the water,” Huffman said. But a reliable, ample water supply “is the choke point on our state being successful,” she added.

Tommy Mason, general counsel of the Lower Colorado River Authority for several years before becoming its executive director, said most people take cheap, plentiful water for granted.

“Water is not like any other commodity or resource,” said Mason, who recently retired from the LCRA, which manages water and power resources. “People feel entitled to incredibly inexpensive water.”

The discussion was among several held on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, in a two-day “festival” organized by the Texas Tribune, the on-line newspaper that focuses on Texas government.

State Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said key to coping with the water shortages is for public officials to make it perfectly clear to their constituents that the subject is critically serious, long-term, and will require a lot of investment.

It will also require citizens to let their elected officials know they’re ready to pay the taxes necessary to maintain an adequate water supply in a state whose population is rapidly growing.

“We need everyone to acknowledge it’s not going to be cheap,” Ritter said.

Mason agreed.

“We’ve taken water for granted,” he said. “We’re all in this together. We’re going to have to pay for it, and we’re going to have to change our behavior” to promote conservation.

Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University in San Marcos, said the Blanco River flows above ground for part of its downstream journey, then goes below ground into an aquifer, and later re-emerges with flow on the surface.

While it’s on the surface, the Blanco water’s capture is regulated, Sansom said. But while it’s underground, any surface land owner can drill a well and pump as much as they want.

“We have no connection between the management of ground water and the management of surface water,” Sansom said. “But it’s the same water.”

Sansom, who previously headed the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for 11 years, said those planning for Texas water use must pay close attention to environmental concerns.

Texas has more bays and estuaries than any other state but Florida, Sansom said. Those resources are hugely important to wildlife, food resources and tourism, Sansom noted. But the inflow from rivers critical to sustaining those resources has dropped to about 10 percent of the historical inflow.

He said 60 percent of urban water is used to water lawns. Huffman added that 60 percent of all water used in Texas is for agriculture.

She said the state’s current water supply projections include 23 percent from conservation, but there’s no game plan to achieve that. Low-flow toilets won’t get it done, she added.

Sansom said “virtually all the watersheds (in Texas) are on private land,” and it’s necessary to find ways to protect that water.

Huffman praised the passage this spring by Ritter and other legislators of a constitutional amendment proposal -- Proposition 8 on the Nov. 8 ballot – which if approved by voters will allow property tax breaks based on the productivity of water stewardship rather than the land’s market value. It would be similar to a wildlife exemption.

Mason said the interrelationship between water and energy production is critical. In California, 20 percent of the state’s energy is used to treat and transport water, Mason said.

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who listened to the panel discussion before appearing on another panel about a state energy plan, and chair of the Energy Resources Committee, said understanding the close relationship between water and energy is hugely important.

He also said the silver lining of the long dry spell is that it’s gotten people’s attention.

“The only good thing about this drought is it’s statewide,” Keffer said. “Everybody’s affected by it.”

• • •

And So On. . . . Among the almost 100 panelists and speakers at the Tribune’s two-day conference were 12 members of the Texas House of Representatives, 4 state senators, 5 members of the U.S. House, 1 U.S. senator, 2 university chief executives, 3 statewide elected officials and 5 heads of state departments or commissions.

Contact McNeely at davemcneely111@gmail.com or 512/458-2963.

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