Can Texas Stop Its Taps From Running Dry?
By Keith Schneider
In many ways, the story of Texas over the last century is the state's devout allegiance to the principle that mankind has dominion over nature.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down that idea in 2020. By 11 October, nearly 800,000 people had been infected in Texas and over 16,000 died.
The sharp and irrepressible rise in virus cases and mortality adds to the intensifying view among Texans that far from living in a place distant from the vagaries of nature, Texas has become a national and global epicenter of natural calamity.
More people and businesses in Texas are in the way, as booming population and economic growth this century have written a much different story of vulnerability – to nature's bullying and to government's uncertain capacity to adjust. The state's principal water research agency projects that demand for fresh water will increase dramatically by mid-century as supplies steadily drop, precipitating what looks like an inevitable supply crisis. In short, the second- largest American state and one of the world's largest economies looks a lot like China, India, Australia, South Africa and every other place in the world contending with the confrontation between diminishing water supply and increasing demand.
"Texas does not understand shortages," said Dr. Larry McKinney, one of the state's top water researchers and the former director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, a unit of Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. "It's the Texas mentality. Texas is so big we've had a hard time coming to grips that resources are finite. We really never had to deal with that. Frankly, we're reaching that point."
Rising Demand Confronts Lower Supplies
There are a couple of ways to examine the coming hardship. The first is in numbers. The Texas Water Development Board found that by 2070 the state's population will grow to 51 million people, 22 million more than today. The state's annual demand for water, the State Water Board projects, will climb to 21.6 million acre-feet (27 trillion liters), up from 18.4 million.
At the same time, a severe drought will bring increasing constraint. State authorities project that in a drought comparable to the most severe on record, water supplies will fall over the next 50 years from 15.2 million acre-feet to 13.6 million acre-feet (17 trillion liters). During the driest periods, more people will have considerably less water.
Here's how that confrontation is playing out in the Hill Country, a region of rapid population growth and uncertain water supply west of Austin, Texas' capital city.
Two generations ago, about 40,000 people made their homes in Hays County, an epic, rural, rolling masterpiece of space and sky close to Austin and San Antonio. Authorities in Hays counted 14,000 homes that were supplied with water from the Trinity Aquifer, a giant freshwater reserve that lay below. In both wet years and dry, water was readily available.
Four decades later, Hays County has grown to 222,000 residents and 75,000 housing units. The Trinity Aquifer is tapped out. Since 2003, a pipeline from Lake Travis, a reservoir near Austin, has provided developers with sufficient water to continue building big subdivisions.
But a study by the Hill Country Alliance and the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos found that the piped water encouraged more drilling fo water wells into the aquifer. In one area, they found that pumping jumped from just over 3 million gallons annually to 90 million gallons (409 million liters).
The idea of the sanctity of economic expansion produces all manner of conflict and turmoil about water throughout Texas. The annual $1.89 trillion Texas economy, the second-largest state economy and ninth-largest in the world, is entirely dependent on access to adequate supplies of water.
The 2011 drought caused more than $7 billion in agricultural losses, and indirect costs of $16.9 billion. From 1980 to 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas also led all states, by far, in losses from severe storms and flooding. In 2017 alone, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that stalled near Houston, caused $125 billion in damages.
"Water is the economy in Texas," said McKinney. "It drives everything, particularly as you get less of it."
Sound familiar? It should. Struggles over water occurring across Texas are essentially the same as those unfolding in places where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress. In the United States that means California, the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain West.
The same two trends are unfolding around the planet, most notably in China and India. In 2011, China discovered that its program of energy development, grain production, and construction of new cities was using so much water that by 2020 it would be 20 to 25 trillion liters in deficit, a shortage so dire it could wreck China's booming economy.
A command-and-control society, China aggressively set out to shrink the deficit by quickly acting on three big initiatives. It moved much of its grain production from the dry Yellow River Basin to the wet northeast provinces. It closed water-thirsty coal mines, coal-washing stations, and water-cooled coal-fired power stations. And it built the largest water-conserving solar and wind electrical generating industry on Earth.
India is having less success. Groundwater levels are steadily declining in the northwest states that produce much of country's rice, wheat, and sugarcane. But the state and national governments encourage the trend. In a nation that has known pervasive hunger, food production is a paramount cultural objective. Keeping the 700 million Indians who are involved in agriculture happy is another prime objective. That's why farmers pay nothing for water. They can use what they like. And they pay nothing for electricity to run ever-more powerful pumps needed to pull water to the surface that lies ever-deeper below ground.
Texas is Texas. Texas is big, rich, growing, impulsive and impressive. The significant question Texas hasn't answered is where it will find enough water by 2070 – 10 trillion liters, according to the Texas Water Development Board, or about half the Chinese water deficit – to keep over 50 million people safe, satisfied and thriving during deepening droughts.
There are two ways to look at the challenge. The most optimistic view is so Texas. The Water Board, with its process of reviewing and revising the State Water Plan every five years, lays out steps that are meant to give Texas guidance and time to figure it out. The more realistic and accurate assessment is that as Texas pursues its steep growth vector, the hardships of serious droughts will grow worse.
Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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