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Keeping Water in Our Rivers:Strategies for Conserving Limited Water Supplies
by Elizabeth Ridlington and Judee Burr, Frontier Group, and Luke Metzger, Environment Texas Research & Policy Center
Water levels in Texas’ rivers and streams are dropping. The 2011 drought was the worst in more than a century, and conditions improved little in 2012. Drought has reduced recreational opportunities, harmed wildlife, and threatened drinking water supplies. As Texas’ population and economy continue to grow, demand for water will increase, making it more important than ever to use water wisely.
Wasteful water use in Texas remains common. New residential landscaping often requires extensive watering to maintain. Cracked municipal water mains leak billions of gallons a year. Farms withdraw billions of gallons of water annually, much of which is used in ways that do not support crop growth. Oil and gas fracking companies consume freshwater for oil and gas production, recycling little of it. Coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants withdraw and consume vast volumes of water for cooling. In each sector, wasted water means that less is immediately available for other purposes. Moreover, wasted water may evaporate or become contaminated, removing it from the hydrological cycle altogether and permanently reducing the amount of water available to recharge Texas aquifers.
Thankfully, there are many proven technologies and approaches that can improve the efficiency of water use. Deploying water conservation technologies and implementing conservation programs could reduce water demand by 500 billion gallons by 2020, enough to meet the municipal water needs of 9 million Texans.
Implementing more efficient irrigation technologies and management practices in agriculture—which withdraws more water than any other consumer, especially in the most arid parts of the state—could reduce water withdrawals by 400 billion gallons per year by 2020, enough to meet the water needs of 7 million Texans.
- Agricultural use is responsible for 56 percent of water demand in Texas, and much of that water is wasted. Evaporation from overhead sprinklers and soil; losses from unlined, open irrigation canals; runoff from oversaturated fields; and water consumption by weeds all use irrigation water without helping crops grow.
- More widespread use of water meters would allow farmers to measure water withdrawals for irrigation and allow better management of limited water supplies. Metering can reduce on-farm water use by 10 to 20 percent.
- Adoption of water-saving practices such as brush clearing and reduced tillage of soils would reduce water consumption by weeds and allow the soil to retain more moisture.
- Installation of more efficient irrigation technologies, such as drip irrigation instead of overhead sprinklers or flood irrigation, can reduce evaporative losses and support greater plant growth.
Increasing the use of drought-tolerant plants in landscaping instead of traditional lawns could reduce withdrawals by 14 billion gallons by 2020, or as much as 240,000 Texans would use in a year.
- Landscapes composed of grass and plants from wetter climates require extensive watering in arid regions of the state. Exacerbating the problem, much of the water that is applied to turf grass is lost through evaporation and permanently removed from the Texas water supply.
- Xeriscaping—landscaping designed to reduce the need for water—can reduce water use by 30 percent.
Detecting and repairing leaking municipal water mains would end the waste of 20 billion gallons of water annually.
- Broken water mains leak at least 35 billion gallons of water per year. Losses may be higher now that drought has accelerated the pace of water line ruptures.
- Electronic leak detection equipment, already in use in cities such as Arlington and Grand Prairie, can find leaks deep underground. Arlington estimates that with its equipment it has identified leaks equal to 5 percent of the water flowing through its system.
Increasing deployment of energy technologies that require little or no water could reduce the amount of water consumed by electricity generation by 43 billion gallons per year in 2020, more than enough for all the residents of Fort Worth.
- Approximately 157 billion gallons of water—equivalent to the residential water needs of 3 million Texans—are consumed every year for cooling the state’s coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants and for turning the turbines to produce electricity. Electricity generation is projected to grow to 7 percent of the state’s water use by 2060.
- Renewable energy technologies such as wind power and solar power require little to no water, while energy efficiency reduces the demand for power from power plants, thus cutting their water consumption. Strong energy efficiency policies could reduce electricity consumption, while renewables could deliver power without consuming water.
- New natural gas or nuclear power plants should use more efficient cooling technologies such as dry cooling or hybrid cooling systems, and should demonstrate that adequate water supplies will be available for the plant, even during times of drought.
Using brackish water for oil and gas drilling processes would cut the amount of new freshwater withdrawn for those activities. That could mean savings of 23 billion gallons per year in 2020, with benefits concentrated in the counties where fracking is widespread.
- Oil and gas drilling, together with mining activities, are currently responsible for 2 percent of Texas’ water demand. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a fast-growing, water-intensive production process for oil and gas, and it is concentrated in the Eagle Ford, Haynesville and Barnett shales and the Permian Basin, imposing especially high water demands in those areas.
- Oil and gas drilling using fracking involves drilling a well and then injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to create fissures in the rock to release the oil and gas trapped inside. Each well consumes large amounts of freshwater. In the Eagle Ford shale, each well requires roughly 5 million gallons of water to frack.
- Recycling the water that returns to the surface once fracking is complete would reduce the need for freshwater withdrawals for each new fracking operation. Replacing freshwater with brackish water would largely eliminate the need for freshwater in fracking.
Reducing water waste is a key element of how Texas should address the growing gap between water supply and demand. In the aftermath of two consecutive years of drought that damaged ecosystems and the economy, Texas needs a new plan for addressing the state’s water needs. The state has access to a finite amount of water and should ensure that it is used efficiently.
- Texas should prioritize water conservation above increasing supply. The state should aim to reduce statewide per capita water use to 140 gallons per day, and should establish efficiency standards for buildings, appliances and irrigation equipment.
- The state should adjust financial incentives to promote water efficiency. Municipal users should be billed under a conservation pricing structure, creating financial signals to reduce water consumption. The pricing structure for agricultural users should also be adjusted, and coupled with subsidies for efficiency investments for agricultural users.
- Texas should adequately fund water conservation programs and efficiency investments. A one-time use of the Emergency Stabilization Fund or “rainy day fund” would jumpstart investments in efficiency programs. To provide ongoing funding, Texas should collect a small fee on water sales. The small additional charge paid by consumers for each gallon of water delivered would help provide reliable funding for financial and technical assistance to cut water use.
- Better knowledge about water use and savings opportunities can help guide investments in water efficiency. The Texas Water Development Board should conduct a statewide feasibility analysis of water efficiency potential, and should improve data collection on water consumption.
- Funding water education. Due to a lack of budget allocation, the Texas Water Development Board developed but never implemented a water education and conservation program designed to teach Texans how to conserve their water supply. Previous estimates suggest that a down payment of $16 million could spread the water conservation message throughout the state.
A strong commitment to water efficiency improvements will help ensure access to water for all water users in Texas, including farmers, residents, businesses and the environment.