Texas-Sized Challenges Facing Lone Star State Water

The Lone Star State's water challenges include a huge population, thirsty agriculture, and a massive push to feed our addiction to fossil fuels.
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Over the past month or so, I've had the chance to speak in Texas twice on water issues -- at the Texas Rodeo and the Water Quality Association national conference -- and I'm back there again for the oil and gas industry's Offshore Technology Conference.

Each of these events brought me to that great state for a different reason. But when you put them all together, you can connect the dots among the Lone Star State's water challenges: a huge population, thirsty agriculture and a massive push to feed our addiction to fossil fuels ... all in 260,000 square miles of mostly sagebrush and forestland.

Add to that the traditional Texas love of freedom and land rights, which is bucking and jumping at the prospect of having the state's Supreme Court endorse the right of groundwater districts to regulate buried water supplies. (As it turns out, the aquifer that will help decide the fate of the state's groundwater is the very same source that allowed Spanish missionaries to build Texas' shrine to freedom, the Alamo.)

Today's remember-the-Alamo spirit is being stoked by water battles. Here's a state where generations of ranchers got rich not on their range-fed cattle, but on the oil and minerals beneath their hooves -- the inviolable property of the landowner. Nobody's sure whether water will continue to be treated the same way. The state owns 99% of the surface water, but irrigation supplies and groundwater have become a new bonanza. Investors like T. Boone Pickens have dived deep into buying up water rights like they were oil rights ... because they recognize that depending on how groundwater rights are adjudicated under the Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day case I just described, a pipeline of clean drinking water may be tomorrow's counterpart to a well gushing rich, black crude.

Oil wells are deep into the water issue, too. The oil towns of Midland and Odessa are in the thick of a serious drought. According to a recent article in The New York Times, lawns are drying up, and so are the prospects for attracting new businesses to the region. After all, a reliable supply of water is vital to development on every level.

As their reservoir levels drop, the folks in Midland are contemplating a $100-million pipeline to quench their thirst with well water, and even considering a water re-use system that would circulate some tertiary-treated wastewater back into the potable water supply. Don't get me wrong -- water re-use is a great idea, and it's been proven in places like Singapore and Israel. What's exciting is that we're starting to realize that such technologies may finally gain traction here in the U.S. of A.

Meanwhile, water continues to flow through the oil industry nearly unabated. Even as the state scrambles to deputize groundwater districts in each county to manage buried water, groundwater wells drilled in conjunction with oil or gas wells are unregulated. That's no small affair -- it takes an average of 7.5 barrels of water to extract one barrel of oil from underground deposits.

Heading north into the Panhandle, we peek into the future as we stand atop the massive Ogallala Aquifer, America's largest underground water resource. Right now, pumping from the Ogallala accounts for as much as 40% of Texas' water use. Farmers and ranchers are tapping the aquifer at five to six times its recharge rate -- so as they produce the beef, cotton, peanuts, melons and all sorts of other commodities we and the rest of the world enjoy, state officials expect the Ogallala to be more than 50% depleted by 2060. Farm groups, Texas universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are riding hard to find ways to conserve water while keeping the agriculture industry (and the rest of us) alive.

I've seen enough Westerns to know that just as the situation looks darkest for our heroes, things turn around and the good guys ride off into the sunset.

Well, this is no movie, and things are looking pretty rough in Texas right now. Legal briefs are blowing through the courtrooms like tumbleweeds, fires are burning across the state, invasive aquatic species are spreading up and down the Coastal Bend, and lines are being drawn for water battles to come.

But I have faith in our Lone Star friends. After all, Texas is home to the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, a group dedicated to teaching us how to make use of the water that falls on our roofs and parking lots. The state is looking at its water supply on a regional basis, assessing demand on a 50-year timeline and investing in infrastructure to help meet it. It's grappling with the groundwater issues that most states are trying to leave to our grandchildren to worry about. I'll be watching this high plains drama unfold, and I'll be rooting for the good guys. My hat's off to Texas.

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