New water supplies and infrastructure will be an important part of Texas’ water planning in future decades. A less-glamorous, but equally important aspect of water planning, however, will be conservation.
Conservation is one of the most cost-effective options within water planning. And for consumers, municipalities, and businesses, the costs associated with water are likely going to only go up in the coming decades, making it that much more critical.
John Hofmann, executive vice president of water for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), says that some of the challenges that authority and others in the state face is the sheer amount of time and dollars it takes to do water supply projects.
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“And the easy projects have been done,” Hofmann says. “It’s getting incrementally more expensive and more difficult to do water supply projects, and we’re in an environment where people are more adverse to paying for water.”
When new water supply projects do take place, the water that comes from them will be much more costly than what comes from existing projects, says Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA).
“As a ballpark number, water from existing reservoirs across the state runs around $150 per acre foot. All the new water supplies that are being proposed across the state by various planning regions start at about $1,000 an acre foot and go up,” West says. “So the cost of new water supplies will be a shock for the public.”
That’s not to say that water bills will jump in the next year, although it’s almost inevitable that they will start rising in the future. Water bills currently reflect the cost of treatment, delivery, and pumping, but not the actual water – and that will probably have to change as municipalities replace costly, and old, infrastructure, and as new water sources are developed.
That’s one reason why the State Water Plan calls for conservation plans from entities like public utilities, and why 20 percent of the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) created by Proposition 6’s passage is dedicated to conservation and reuse.
A water conservation plan addresses water use efficiency and long-term water use, and is different from a drought plan, which deals with meeting short-term needs due to drought conditions.
In the Rio Grande Valley, many of the conservation strategies center around agricultural irrigation. The Texas Project for Ag Water Efficiency is a project that integrates modern irrigation water distribution network control and management techniques with irrigation management on farmland in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The project recently completed construction of a flow meter calibration facility, and helps maximize the efficiency of local irrigation technologies.
In the LCRA’s basin, conservation efforts include working with municipalities and agricultural producers. Strategies range from helping homeowners water efficiently to a program to automate canal gates in the LCRA’s irrigation divisions.
Statewide, a number of bills passed in the last legislative session also address conservation, from encouraging rainwater harvesting to requirements for annual water audits and funding for agricultural conservation projects.
Market forces are also encouraging conservation on an individual level. New residential and mixed-use developments under construction often incorporate water and energy efficiency in the forms of rain gardens, water recycling, and rainwater capture.
“It’s market prohibitive not to incorporate green elements into buildings,” says civil engineering firm BIG RED DOG CEO Will Schnier. “Residents demand it. They factor utility bills and operating expenses into cost of living.”
For those Texans who still do cherish a lush lawn, change may be on the way.
“People will not be happy, but maybe we should all go to watering only two times a week,” says Elizabeth Fazio, Director of the Committee on Natural Resources at Texas House of Representatives. “Maybe we need to plant more native grasses. Las Vegas put in tons of Bermuda grass in the 80’s and 90’s, and you can still see effect of that today on Lake Mead, due to drought, but also due to those lawns. They paid to tear people’s lawns out, and plant indigenous plants. Now they’re having a hard time catching up. There’s so much opportunity. We’re not behind the curve yet, and we have lots of ways to conserve.”