There’s a popular saying in America that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It’s usually attributed to the writer Mark Twain, but whoever actually said it could hardly have known just how intense that fighting would become as water gets ever scarcer.
The Colorado River is so worn out trying to meet the demands of the seven arid states it serves in the west that it no longer runs into the sea. And now, the United States supreme court has been called upon to settle a battle that is raging over access to the Red River which serves the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The heart of the matter is that water-starved Texas feels that it is entitled under the Red River compact, which was signed by all four states, to billions of gallons of water from the Oklahoma side of the river basin. For its part Oklahoma insists that Texas is not doing enough to conserve. Texas is also fighting a battle on its southern front with New Mexico over access to water from the Rio Grande. This dispute may also end up being settled by the supreme court but whatever the outcome of both these battles, the ultimate victory of having an ample water supply that would allow agriculture and businesses to flourish may be an elusive one.
It’s not for nothing that Texas is waging water wars on all fronts. A population boom and a climate that keeps getting warmer and drier has led to severe shortages in much of the state. Despite claims to the contrary, Texas is taking this shortage very seriously indeed. The state legislature recently approved a bill, HB4, which provides for $53bn to be spent over the next 40 years on new infrastructure and water conservation efforts. Texan farmers peering into dry wells and businesses facing escalating water costs are doing their bit too.
According to Bill Hoffman, one of the country’s leading experts in CII (commercial, industrial & institutional) water conservation, due to a combination of new technologies and economic necessity, industrial water use is actually on the decline. Companies like Freescale in Austin, Texas that manufactures microchips using ultra pure water have been able to save millions of gallons of water by implementing operational processes that reuse and recycle wastewater. The American Airlines maintenance base in Fort Worth has reduced its water usage by nearly 36% and saved over $1m by expanding a reverse-osmosis system to treat millions of gallons of wastewater. The use of Natural Gas Combined Cycle power plants (NGCCs) is also on the rise in Texas and researchers estimate that the state could save up to 53bn gallons of water a year by switching from coal fired power plants to NGCCs.
At the moment, however, the biggest drain on Texas’ water comes from the agriculture sector. Currently around 57% of the state’s total water supply is used for irrigation. Most farmers are already using highly efficient irrigation systems, such as central pivot sprinklers that distribute water more evenly and use less of it than other surface or furrow irrigation techniques. By necessity, farmers are letting some fields go fallow during periods of extreme drought and some have already turned to dry land agriculture growing drought tolerant crops like cotton. But despite all of these efforts, groundwater depletion is continuing at an unsustainable rate. A 2012 University of Texas study concluded that it is only a matter of decades before farming as Texans know it, comes to an end. The state water plan is projecting irrigation water demand to decline over the coming decades while municipal water demand is set to rise.
Some Texas cities have been slow on the uptake when it comes to saving water but prompted by a law suit filed by the Sierra club that led to restrictions on pumping from the Aquifer, the city of San Antonio has become a leader in water conservation. One of its key initiatives was a city wide toilet replacement programme. The city realised it was more cost effective to give residents new toilets that used less water than it would have been to build a new pipeline. The city also fixed many leaks in the water distribution system, launched an aggressive water education campaign and began treating wastewater and effluent to be used for irrigation on golf courses and city parks. As a result of these efforts, total water use in San Antonio is around the same or slightly less than it was in the 1980’s even though the water utility has added 300,000 new customers.
Two smaller cities in west Texas, Brownwood and Big Spring, facing chronic water shortages have gone a step further and are on track to become one of the first US cities to reclaim toilet water for human consumption. Some people are still turned off by the “yuck” factor but many are slowly realising that as water supplies fails to meet demand, recycling effluent for drinking may be the way of the future.
As Andrew Liveris, the CEO of Dow Chemical put it, “Water is the oil of the 21st century.” Texas has already had to deal with the economic and environmental consequences of oil well depletion. Coping with dry water wells may prove to be a far greater challenge.
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