Water shortage is the most serious natural resource issue facing Texas today.
Here, as elsewhere in the world, the struggle over the uses to which water should be put — and who has the right to decide on those uses — is intense and escalating, particularly as the cyclical occurrence of severe flooding and drought increase. The bottom line is that Texas’ population is going to double in the next fifty years (for more about this, see our feature article on page 373) and if all the water rights we have issued in our major rivers since Texas was a colony of Spain were fully exercised, many of them would be dry today. Thus, many of our most iconic rivers, which are vital to both our economy and the environment, are at risk.
Due in part to increasing stress on our rivers and lakes in Texas, we are also increasingly dependent on groundwater from the State’s diverse major and minor aquifers. Unfortunately, we do not recognize in law or policy the hydrologic linkage of our groundwater resources to surface water — this failure will complicate sound water management of both in the future.
Texas’ sensational system of bays and estuaries are arguably the finest such system of any state in the union. These coastal systems provide billions of dollars of economic benefit to the State and constitute some of the most prolific marine ecosystems in the world. What is less understood is that this spectacular natural resource is entirely dependent on continued supplies of freshwater flowing down our rivers and streams to mix with saltwater to create the unique conditions vital to the existence of so many species of fish and wildlife. Despite the enormous economic and environmental benefits we receive from these freshwater inflows, we have done a very inadequate job of insuring their continuation.
Historically, we have been reluctant to make difficult choices and decisions relating to water but when faced with crisis we have reacted. Following the drought of the 1950’s, which we formally consider the worst on record, we built over 200 major reservoirs for flood control, water supply, and hydropower and they have served us well. However, since the 1970’s there has been a dramatic decline in reservoir construction, due to a number of reasons.
More and more communities are creating underground reservoirs in a process called aquifer storage and retrieval, which captures water in times of high flows and stores it to avoid evaporation. We also have millions of acre feet of brackish groundwater in Texas which has been largely untapped and is less saline than water from the Gulf and closer to the consumer, making it less costly to produce and deliver.
But will that be enough to ensure our future? Despite much progress in water conservation, particularly in cities like San Antonio and El Paso, we still waste far too much water. It is likely that the key to having a healthy water supply in the future will be increased efficiency.
Our rivers and streams, our bays, estuaries, and our aquifers not only help define us as a state but are essential components of the one resource that no plant and animal can live without: water. We must do everything we can to make sure it is there for our economy, our environment, and our children.
Contributed for the Texas Almanac 2020-2021 by Dr. Andrew Sansom, leading conservationist and executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.