Looming water shortage draws Mitchell Foundation interest

Texas’ growing population, including along the upper coastal region, will require more water in the next 50 years, with demand outstripping supply as early as 2020 and a critical shortage by 2070, according to the 2017 State Water Plan.

That’s just one challenge facing the state’s water managers, and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s Advancing One Water initiative hopes to curb the problem with a new management paradigm.

Water managers from across Texas will meet Wednesday through Friday in Austin to talk about critical issues facing the state’s water future at the U.S. Water Alliance’s One Water Summit, hosted by the Mitchell Foundation.

Representatives from the Galveston Bay Foundation, Houston Advanced Research Center and the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District will be attending, said Emily Warren, water program officer with the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

It’s not just Texas but the entire nation that faces problems with aging water infrastructure, uncertain climate challenges and often overly complicated, territorial ways of managing water supply, Warren said.

Texas, with its complexity of geographic regions, a prediction of steady population growth and a network of bureaucracies managing water from the top down, faces unique challenges, Warren said.

“Part of the problem is how we do water management in Texas and that among utility leaders it’s much easier to keep doing the same kind of work with the expertise you have on hand,” Warren said. “Oftentimes, water management happens in silos within a city — one focuses on stormwater, one on wastewater treatment, one on flooding, one on land applications, one on drinking water and so on — and the more governmental entities involved, the more complicated planning for the future becomes.”

In essence, the One Water concept, promoted by the U.S. Water Alliance, a national nonprofit, and partners like the Mitchell Foundation, argues that water within a particular geographical area is a cyclical system that should be managed holistically, from supply to delivery to conservation and usage to future demand.

The current system doesn’t promote sustainable water management or place a priority on sustaining the needs of the environment, a report funded by the Mitchell Foundation concluded. One Water promotes the management of all water within a specific geography — drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and gray water — as a single resource that must be managed holistically, viably and sustainably.

It’s a daunting systemic change and a longstanding structure that would be difficult to dismantle, Warren said. The key is to work within specific geographies, at the local level with a bottom-up approach rather than the other way around.

Basic concepts include community decisions as opposed to utility decisions. Some long- standing practices, such as feeding large lawns with pure water and funneling stormwater into concrete culverts, should be stopped as soon as possible, and that won’t happen without community buy-in, proponents argue.

Foremost among One Water recommendations is a change in municipal hierarchies that give city water utilities the right to make water supply decisions independent of stormwater management or even parks departments and energy utilities.

Ultimately, One Water proponents argue, if communities and city management considered all water in their system and all needs alongside one another, false choices of working either for the economy or the environment or society would fall away.

Regarding the upper Texas coast, Warren said switching gears to a more holistic water management system will require looking at the watershed all the way from Houston to the coast, considering how to slow down water running through urban settings, capture it and reuse it in times of drought as well as asking what’s happening downstream and ensuring water continues to flow into bays and estuaries.

Texas’ advantage is that it already does well in water reuse, Warren said.

“And the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas puts away 20 percent for conservation, so there’s real money on the table.”

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