Opinion
11:49 am
Sat November 2, 2013

Texas Prop 6 would waste billions getting the water equation right

For a plan that purports to thoughtfully guide Texas through a more crowded and thirsty future, the 2012 State Water Plan reads unsettlingly like a playbook from the last century: dams to divert already limp river flows, big pipes pumping rural water hundreds of miles to thirsty city centers, and dozens of evaporation-prone reservoirs to fill in for those that have already gone dangerously dry.

The slurry of projects the constitutional amendment known as Proposition 6 being voted on November 5 would kick into gear offer a solitary – and needlessly wasteful -- version of the future.

For the uninitiated, Prop 6 would create a funding mechanism to rapidly deploy much of the State Water Plan's $53 billion in water strategies as prioritized and approved by a recently restructured Texas Water Development Board.

“How the money will be apportioned is still unknown,” Ronald Kaiser, Texas A&M professor of water policy, told the Houston Chronicle recently. “People are putting all their faith in the water board.”

The fact that Perry dismissed the leadership of the TWDB to install his own salaried triumvirate in September, including the owner of a natural gas company that earned him $25,000 last year, should give voters pause.

But the plan is flawed from its primary assumption that a projected 82 percent population increase by 2060 will require a 22 percent increase in potable water. In fact, Texas' population has more than doubled since 1970 – from 11 million to 26 million – and our water use has remained nearly static at roughly 17 billion acre-feet per year.

The water crisis being amplified by two political action committees largely funded by energy and chemical companies reliant on large volumes of cheap water ignores the fact that the TWDB still has $360 million in bonding authority granted by voters in 2001 and $6 billion more granted in 2011 – more than enough to cover all of the projects the the plan says should be tackled by 2020. Despite the slick marketing, this is not a vital vote to secure your future. It's a vote to loose the state's purse strings too early on a vastly imperfect plan.

An obvious oversight is the suggestion that the 700,000 acre-feet of water cooling our power plants today must grow to 1.6 million acre-feet in 2060, despite the fact that natural gas plants already knocking so many coal units offline use an estimated half of the water of coal, according to a recent University of Texas study, even with all the hundreds of millions of gallons being heedlessly trashed via hydraulic fracturing. The vastly lighter water footprints of wind and photovoltaic solar sure to be a much larger – if not the dominant – slice of our energy mix in the decades ahead apparently aren't figured in.

The plan's most critical failure, however, is in funding Big Infrastructure first (the plan's costliest project is a $3.3 billion reservoir in East Texas to feed Dallas-Fort Worth, 170 miles away) and nimble innovation last, particularly in urban areas, whose thirst is expected to increase 10-fold by 2060.

Dismissed entirely is the practice of rainwater harvesting, part of the 2012 Uniform Plumbing Code. Rainwater, the authors argue simplistically, is moot when drought sets in. It's as if it never occurred to this bunch that water not sucked out of an aquifer today (say Central Texas' Trinity Aquifer, which dropped more than 16 feet in 2011) because of effective rainwater utilization may come in handy when the skies are less generous. Such practices are already being explored on a city scale by architects like Houston-based Rives Taylor, who see in floodwater not something to be channelized and diverted away from cities, but as a resource to be slowed, absorbed, and used.

“Taming the water is the first step,” Taylor told an Austin audience recently, “but the ultimate goal perhaps is to transcend the crisis and turn these flood elements into an asset.” Permeable asphalt and underground storage can trap water that would otherwise wash downstream in a wave, water that can then flush toilets, water landscapes, fill cooling towers, or even directly recharge aquifers. There are dozens of such smart-management approaches that will be shortchanged by the Big Pipe projects most familiar to those at the Associated General Contractors of Texas, who ponied up $375,000 for House Speaker Joe Straus' Water Texas PAC's ad war and will most certainly be expecting something in return.

Passage of Prop 6 won't stop serious investment in smart urban conservation measures, but it could delay it for years, until billions have been misspent sacking rural resources that not only provide for numerous smaller communities far from the opulent English lawns of Houston and Dallas but for a wilder natural Texas we are all equally responsible for.

Greg Harman is a San Antonio-based writer. His column, Lone Star Green, is published every other week. You can see more of his writings at harmanonearth.com.