One Water, One Texas

"The answer is in nature."

Solutions don’t get any clearer than that. 

This year’s UN World Water Day explored “how we can use nature to overcome the water challenges of the 21st century.” And that’s the heart of The Nature Conservancy’s philosophy: people need nature and nature need people for either to thrive. It’s a global priority that touches down locally, across the country, and around the world. Whether we’re planting trees in Dallas to clean and cool urban air or working with partners in Kenya to establish Africa’s first water fund, we’re one part of a cohesive whole—a planet fighting to ensure a resilient future.

The themes here are integration, interconnectedness, and innovation. The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s One Water strategy challenges us to reimagine water and water management through a holistic lens. Whether it’s surface water, groundwater, stormwater, or drinking water, it’s all One Water. In a similar vein, we need a One Texas mindset to move the needle on the big issues we’re facing today.

Water scarcity touches all of us—booming cities and rural farmlands, developed and developing nations alike—and we all have a stake in finding the right solution. The World Economic Forum has listed water crises among its top three global risks in terms of impact since 2012—alongside weapons of mass destruction, climate change, and the outbreak of infectious disease.

And, for good reason.

Water is the lifeblood of people and our planet, but it’s a limited resource. Consider this: water makes up 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, but 96.5 percent of it is salt water with another 2.5 percent of it locked in ice. At the end of the day, we’re counting on one percent of our water supply to sustain an entire global economy.

Add a changing climate to the mix and it’s easy to see why the UN estimates that five billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 (the same year the world population is expected to hit nine billion and we’ll see an estimated 50 percent increase in demand for agricultural production, which depends on water).

Climate change will exacerbate drought, affect water quality, and throw a wrench in our ability to provide food and clean water to our ever-growing cities. These concerns reach beyond the economy and public health, too.

The Department of Defense has weighed in, calling climate change “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” And Moody’s, the credit rating agency, announced at the end of last year that it’s adding susceptibility to climate change to its list of credit risks for states.

Texas isn’t excepted from any of this. The state’s population is projected to double by 2050, and we’re home to six of the nation’s 15 fastest-growing cities. Growth and urbanization create a great deal of promise and economic opportunity, but they also stretch water resources to their limit. According to the Texas Water Development Board, water demand in Texas will increase by 17 percent from 2020-2070. And all the water we have now is all the water we’ve got for the future.

So, how do we chart a path forward? Solutions don’t take sides, so there’s no merit in pitting winners against losers. Ecological needs sit on par with those of cities, agriculture, and industry. If we recognize this truth, we can work together to establish creative partnerships and brainstorm workable, long-term solutions. Let’s remember that a win for water is a win for all of us.

The Texas Water Development Board’s state plan is a good start; it sets a goal of 28 percent of future water supplies to come from conservation by 2070 and allots some of the water we use for agriculture to be funneled to our growing cities—but it doesn’t say exactly how we’re going to make that happen. Conservation is our least expensive and most efficient solution, and it should be our priority. This doesn’t just mean using less water but finding ways to use it more efficiently. It also means turning back to nature; incorporating natural elements into infrastructure to protect coastlines against extreme weather, enhancing urban tree canopies, and restoring parks and waterways to manage stormwater runoff and flooding.

Tackling one big problem often creates a ripple effect of positive outcomes. In 2014, the Nature Conservancy created a coalition of public and private organizations to pull off one of the most complex conservation deals in Texas. The target: protect a 1,500-acre property near San Antonio. But we were also able to protect the flight path of 15-20 million Mexican free-tailed bats (the single largest concentration of mammals on the planet); habitat for the federally-endangered golden-cheeked warbler, and part of the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies fresh water to two million Central Texans. We couldn’t have achieved any of this without banding together in partnership.

Bearing that ripple effect in mind, One Water will do more than ensure a clean water supply. It will allow us to sustain food and energy production, healthy cities, and vibrant communities. We’re trained to think that we’re divided along party lines or by our stance on a given issue. The reality is that we all seek a future where our children and grandchildren can thrive with each other and the world around them. But it all hinges on a shared understanding that our systems, whether natural or manmade, are connected.

If we can get it right in Texas, we can get it right anywhere. So, let’s get it right in Texas—together. One Water is One Texas. 

Laura Huffman is the Texas state director for The Nature Conservancy, where she establishes conservation strategy and provides public policy leadership to advance its mission. Laura also leads the Conservancy’s Urban Advisory Council and is the founding director of its North America Cities program, helping growing cities use nature to mitigate the effects of climate change and provide the natural resources people need to thrive. Laura earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a Bachelor of Science in political science from Texas A&M University. Follow Laura on Twitter @laurajhuffman

Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Advancing the state of Water, Texas with a One Water approach" are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the Mitchell Foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.   

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