State of Drought: Conversations on the state of water in Texas

Last week the Texas Observer hosted “State of Drought” , a public conversation on the state of water in Texas with author Seamus McGraw, Observer editor Forrest Wilder and environmental reporter Naveena Sadasivam.

The following is a paraphrased transcript of the conversation, monitored by Forrest Wilder:

Forrest:
Seventy-five percent of the state of Texas is in a drought, and that May was the warmest May on record. I’d like to start by asking Seamus:
“Why did you write the book, ‘A Thirsty Land‘? Why Texas?”

Seamus:
The world is in a crisis for providing potable water for a growing population. This is happening everywhere. How Texas responds to the crisis will lead the way for the rest of the country. The image of Texas is an image of independence, strength, and working for themselves while simultaneously working collectively. The Texan image is the American image. It’s what people think of when they think of Americans. We have to lead the way through this water crisis.

 

Forrest:
How is Texas doing, with respect to the water crisis?

 

Naveena:
There’s a lot of conflict in Texas over water. Urban v. Rural, Upstream v. Downstream, and so on. For example, the San Saba river goes dry for long stretches and people are fighting over why the river is going dry. Some say farmers have drilled wells drawing from the underflow. The laws for surface water v. ground water in Texas are completely different. The rule of capture in Texas is too broad. The state is hands off for groundwater, and this is a problem.

 

Seamus:
Texas has repealed the laws of hydrology. How we’re doing changes from day to day. But in that time we’ve had around 55,000 new people come who are using 40,000 acre-feet more water. We look at water as a local problem and don’t look at the effects on a bigger scale. There are systemic issues with water. What happens in one place, at one time has cascading consequences that cannot be foreseen.

Forrest:
How many of our problems go back to the 1901 Rule of Capture where groundwater is considered private property?

 

Naveena:
It’s true that famers pumping ground water out for their own use is their right, legally. The legislature needs to step in to fix this.

 

Seamus:
When you cross the state line to New Mexico, the landscape goes from green and lush to brown instantaneously. This doesn’t happen in nature. It’s happening because Texans are pulling groundwater for their own landscaping purposes.

 

Forrest:
Are we ready for the next extreme drought?

 

Seamus:
It’s a one word answer, No. There’s been extreme drought coupled with an extreme resistance to rule of capture. This is based on Texan’s strong belief in property rights and Texan culture of independence. However, I am optimistic that Texas will rise to the challenge. One good example is the regulation of the Edwards Aquifer in the 1950’s. The federal government had threaten to step in if Texas didn’t start regulating its water supply during the drought. There’s nothing that will make Texans move faster than the threat of intervention from the federal government.

Naveena:
Texas is not ready. The big question is, ‘Who gets water during a drought?’ Farmers will get cut off to serve the urban population.

Forrest:
Texas has a plan for the future, but does it consider the effects of climate change?

 

Seamus:
In the last six months we’ve had unusual rainfall that is less affective due to higher temperatures. Also all this rain fall is falling in areas that are already wet.

 

Forrest:
What is Texas doing right? What are some solutions?

 

Seamus:
We have made tremendous progress. In the last drought not one town ran out of water. They came close, but not one actually ran out. Aquifer storage and recovery is critical. We need to account for irrigation.

I am less sanguine on desalination. It’s true there’s a lot of potential for desalination on the Gulf Coast. But where do you put the infrastructure? The same place as the petroleum factories is the answer. Then there’s issues with contamination of the water to get desalinated.

 

Forrest:
Is conservation enough?

 

Naveena:
The cities have made big improvements to reduce per person water consumption. However there is still a lot of waste. We take for granted that the water coming out of our taps is drinkable. It takes energy to treat out water and it takes water to make energy. We do not need to treat our shower water, and definitely not our toilet water to the same standards as our drinking water. Doing so waste’s a ton of energy, which ironically results in wasting water.

 

Seamus:
We consume 122 gallons of water per day per person. Of those 122 gallons 10% of that goes into our bodies. We need to do a lot more with reuse and integrating grey water.

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