2022 is a Critical Time for Change

Since 2015, we’ve become used to wetter years in Texas, but that is about to change.

Beautiful Silky Flowing Waterfall with Big Cypress Trees and Giant Gnarly Roots in the Texas Hill Country.

Remember the droughts years of 1996 to 2014?  In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 240 Texas counties as primary natural disaster areas due to drought.  Between 2011 and 2014, some small communities in Texas ran out of water, requiring the water to be trucked to meet municipal demands.

In a year of La Niña conditions, with above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation for our state predicted, the current weather pattern will be one of the driest in a decade, climatologists say.  It appears that another drought cycle has just begun.

While Texas’ water planning process, spawned from the 1950s drought, is designed to withstand prolonged dry spells, officials say, Texas’ population growth will strain our water supplies to the limit.  The World Economic Forum says the Lone Star State will need to find an extra 10 trillion liters of water a year by 2070 as the state’s population (currently estimated at 29.9 million) will grow by 2070 to over 51 million.

Currently, ground water from nine major aquifers accounts for about 60 percent of our state’s water needs.  Surface water provides nearly all of the remaining 40 percent from 15 major rivers, 188 major reservoirs, seven major estuaries, eight coastal basins, and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB)’s 2022 State Water Plan addresses aquifer storage and recovery, brackish groundwater and seawater desalination, surface water strategies, as well as conservation and reuse.   The estimated capital cost of implementing the 2022 plan is approximately $80 billion.

In any case, it’s safe to bet that water is only going to get more scarce, more contentious, and more expensive.  While we must invest in water infrastructure, the strategy for meeting increased water demand must also include reducing both potable and non-potable water consumption to the maximum extent possible.

Trillions of gallons of water and billions in water and energy expenses nationwide have been saved since the implementation of the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct 1992) setting minimum efficiency standards for all toilets, showers, urinals and faucets manufactured in the United States after 1994.  Modern faucets use 40% less water than pre-1995 faucets. Showerheads manufactured since 1995 use 50% less water than new models, and post-1995 toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf), compared to older toilets using as much as 5 gpf.  While there was lots of whining that such products caused users to flush twice or suffer a weak shower spray, the early performance issues are a thing of the past.

The EPA’s WaterSense label makes it simple to find water-efficient products, new homes, and programs that meet EPA’s criteria for efficiency and performance. WaterSense-labeled products and services are certified to use at least 20 percent less water, save energy, and perform as well as or better than regular models. ENERGY STAR criteria requires washing machines to use 30% less water and consume half as much energy as conventional washers. Dishwashers that qualify for the ENERGY STAR label use 18% less water and 10% less energy than conventional machines.  These partnership programs have come a long way in educating and encouraging us to be more mindful about protecting our vital asset–designing landscapes for water efficiency, checking for and eliminating leaks, and protecting water quality by using non-toxic cleaning products, to name just some of the effective messaging.  The efforts have, indeed, helped us save a lot of water, but it is critical that we also assess the potential for using non-potable water to replace potable water wherever possible.

Texas currently uses reclaimed water for less than three percent of its water supply; however, by 2060, reclaimed water is projected to provide about 10 percent.  Installing a greywater or rainwater harvesting system in a home, allows up to 60 percent of the household water to be reclaimed and reused, putting an end to senselessly using potable water to flush toilets, wash clothes and water lawns. Considering that 80 to 90 percent of the energy used to heat water in the home is wasted as it flows down the drain makes another case for greywater.  A greywater system with drain heat recovery captures the energy and reuses it to preheat cold water entering the water heater or going to other water fixtures.  The widespread acceptance of water reuse systems will require more states and municipalities to adopt codes or local ordinances to allow them.

Our efforts to conserve and reuse water will also reduce our use of the tremendous energy resources needed to procure, pump, heat, treat, transport, and store potable water, not to mention energy needed to treat used water in the form of sewage. Reducing our use of electricity also poses to reduce our use of water needed to operate power plants.  Conversely, electricity is used for water pumping, extraction, transfer, distribution, irrigation, manufacturing and wastewater treatment. Reducing the use of water thus results in a reduction of the amount of electricity required to be produced by the power plant.

A changed mindset by legislators and consumers is needed to give our aquifers a chance to naturally refill and slash our consumption of treated water. It won’t be enough to avoid the inevitable water shortage we face, but it would give us more time to make the investments and build the facilities we’ll need for the future.