Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
With a searing heat wave and protracted drought gripping Texas, Jim Lester of the Houston Advanced Research Center urged more attention to water conservation, greater cooperation in allocating water resources, and a variety of other actions to help address water-related challenges facing the state.
Lester, HARC's vice president and chief operating officer, was speaking to a couple of hundred people who attended a recent panel discussion on water issues that was organized by the Rice Design Alliance and held at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts.
"It's amazing that water is our most important resource, but gets so little investment," Lester said.
Contentious water issues have long been a routine part of life in Texas. Looking ahead, however, water experts say the state's rapid population and economic growth are creating ever-greater demands for water resources. Meanwhile, climate experts including Texas’ state climatologist warn that future droughts will be aggravated by man-made atmospheric warming.
To deal with those projected conditions, Lester recommended these steps:
- "Serious water conservation," going beyond the relatively limited drought-contingency plans developed to date. Water conservation to stretch existing supplies is cheaper than any method for developing new supplies, he said.
- Cooperation among water users – urban, industrial, agricultural – in place of the traditional tendency for competition to dominate allocation discussions and decisions.
- "Appropriate consideration" for nature – meeting the water needs of the ecosystems such as those in the state's rivers, marshes and bays at the same time that growing human demand is met.
- Matching the differing levels of purity in water supplies to the different uses those supplies will serve. El Paso, for instance, provides separate supplies of potable water for human uses and non-potable water for irrigation, agriculture and other appropriate applications. "If it doesn't have to be drinking water," Lester said, "why pay for that?"
- Preparing to pay high prices for developing new water supplies. Desalination, for instance, is a viable technology for Texas, already used in locations including Brownsville and El Paso. But it is very expensive compared to traditional technologies for creating increased water supplies. Even so, Lester said, "it's time to think about new technologies."
- "Coherent management of all water resources," instead of Texas' current, two-part arrangement with surface water supplies managed under one system and groundwater supplies under another. Trying to create a unified management system would spark conflict, but surface water and groundwater are intimately connected, Lester said.
The Texas Water Development Board is now completing work on the 2012 State Water Plan, which will update and replace the comprehensive water-supply blueprint that the board adopted in 2007.
Edward G. Vaughan of Boerne, chairman of the Water Development Board, also served on the water panel along with Lester.
Vaughan told the audience that Texas will have to "implement every possible scenario" in order to meet projected water demands, practice "more efficient utilization" of water supplies, and summon the "political will" to fund water-supply recommendations.
Vaughan said he hopes the hardships accompanying the current drought will help provide momentum for addressing water issues in the next session of the Texas Legislature in 2013.
While climate-change models are not yet able to predict changes in regional precipitation, the current drought should inspire Texans to be proactive in areas such as conservation planning, Lester said.