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Conservation is still the best water plan

The state of Texas needs to do better at it.

As Texas recovers from the severe drought of the last two years, water experts say that conservation is the easiest way to ensure that the state will have enough of water for future growth. Fixing leaks is one method that took on added importance since the drought caused pipes to crack as soils dried out and shifted. But homeowners and businesses also have plenty of room to cut back on water use, especially on lawns, which account for at least half of the average home’s summertime water demand. Farmers, who account for 60 percent of the overall state’s water use, can also save more, though their share is already declining as cities grow.

The need to conserve was driven home by the 2012 state water plan, which opens with the statement: “In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”

“Conservation is an essential part of the state water plan,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist. “It’s part of how we get from point A to point B. It’s also the least expensive to implement.”

The push toward conservation is gathering pace, especially in cities. This spring, Dallas —  a heavy water user, with about 120,000 gallons per year on average for a single-family household last year — announced that it was implementing permanent watering restrictions, limiting homeowners to two days of watering per week. Austin is also considering enacting permanent restrictions — something that El Paso, the driest major city in Texas, has had in place for a few decades.

“I think the best water management practice is to always restrict the use of outdoor watering,” state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said at a committee hearing this spring, in the wake of a visit to El Paso.

But enacting restrictions can be wrenching, especially in places that pride themselves on small government. Both Midland and Odessa — both of them in the perpetually dry Permian Basin — put in place restrictions for the first time last year, amid the worsening drought. “We don’t respond really well to, ‘Okay, the government says you’ve got to do this, and by God you’re going to do it or we’re going to string you up,’” Midland Mayor Wes Perry said last year, as he explained Midland’s initial preference for voluntary restrictions (which did not work).

That sound you hear is my heart breaking for the poor, put-upon people of Midland and Odessa. People who live in deserts should not expect to be able to water their lawns on demand.

To me, using tiered rates to charge a premium to high end water users, and dedicating a portion of those proceeds to fixing leaks, is a cornerstone strategy for conservation. I get that the high end users themselves don’t much care for this approach, but who cares? Let their big water bills serve as incentive to reduce their usage. I don’t even understand the argument against this.

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One Comment

  1. B. K. Oxley (binkley) says:

    Great post, thanks.

    One quibble – conservation is not a plan, it is a technique or strategy part of a plan. Other techniques might include (not necessarily best, though) desalinization, more surface reservoirs by damming rivers, waste water recycling, etc. All the usual suspects:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_resources
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fresh_water
    http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html
    http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/earthwherewater.html

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