Water, Water Everywhere … and Soon Not a Drop to Drink?

The earth is mostly water, but approximately 98% of this planet’s water is salt water, leaving less than 2% percent of it as fresh water. Of that 2%, even less than that is considered potable—water that is considered safe for drinking and cooking. Because of continuing global changes in climate, the amount of rain and ice melts from winter have dropped off and lowered the reserve supplies of freshwater available for treatment. There are ongoing initiatives to educate and regulate the use of water in the world, as well as exploration into the technology of water farming in arid countries, and many countries are working to build water treatment plants. Will it be enough?

The world’s population is fast approaching almost 8 billion and as the population grows so too does the demand for water. Our overarching issue then becomes one of resource management of scarce supplies. Industrialization of 3rd world countries will only increase their need for resources, and as these societies grow and modernize, their reasonable use of natural resources like water will also increase in proportion. That makes it almost impossible to plan for an increase in need according to an increase of percentage of use per billion persons. What does that have to do with Texas water?

The Texas Water Supply

Because of the overall land area square miles (268,597) and water area square miles (7,365), water use and associated rainfall levels through the state, Texas has some unique challenges to address:

  • The Texas Gulf Coast relies on surface water. Rivers are primarily on the eastern side of the state and drain to the Gulf.
  • Through Central and North Texas, the primary sources are surface and ground water. The Edwards Aquifer is in this region and is prolific when it rains and replenishes, but there are shortages in groundwater when it doesn’t so they rely on other sources. For example, in the San Antonio area, they have developed reservoir and transfer systems to supply some surrounding cities.
  • In West Texas, the supply comes more from ground water and less from surface water. Wells and well fields continue to be developed in North and West Texas, but production continues to decline consistently throughout the state.

We’ve reached a critical point as a result of scarcity and previous misuse, and by not being prudent in our conservation efforts for protecting and using water.

The Texas Challenge

Since 2011, Texans have been forced to reconsider how they use their water. That year produced the worst single-year drought in recorded history, and more than 1,000 public water systems enacted voluntary or mandatory water restrictions for their customers.[i]

In addition to drought conditions, Texas has been experiencing an influx of population because of the jobs available, living conditions, and perceived opportunities. Current projections reflect that we’ll more than double our population by 2060, and our water supply is lagging tremendously.

We’ve reached a critical point as a result of scarcity and previous misuse, and by not being prudent in our conservation efforts for protecting and using water. Starting in the 1970s, water professionals became aware that minimizing water waste was essential. For example, AWWA’s water resources policy in 1975 included the statement, “Every effective means to prevent and minimize waste and promote wise use should be employed by all entities, public and private, engaged in water resource activities.”[ii] Many of us remember the messaging from those early conservation efforts back in the 70’s: the solution to pollution is dilution; save water, shower with a friend; and reduce, reuse, recycle – for both water and other resources.

But households use more than ever before, so where have we gone wrong? We’ve tried various things:

  • The use of low-flow toilets and showerheads, faucet aerators and other devices has helped, but not enough to be more than the proverbial drop in the bucket.
  • Numerous cities nationwide have residential conservation plans during certain times of the year to curtail usage, and compliance is mandatory.
  • All public utilities have conservation plans in place, and conservation methods are now mandatory in most building codes.

The challenge is that there is are multiple sectors that use water:

  • Municipal – single-family residential, multi-family residential, institutional, commercial
  • Industrial – manufacturing and fracking, for example
  • Agricultural – irrigation and livestock

The largest category of water use in Texas is for irrigated agriculture at approximately 60% of the state’s water use. Those in the know have stated that if we better managed just 10% of the water that gets dumped on agriculture, we wouldn’t have water issues on the municipal side.

Municipal water use is about 28% of the supply. Manufacturing facilities such as food processing plants use use about 7%. Most have programs to manage their water use, but they still reduce the available water supply overall.

And then there is the multi-faceted issue of fracking. Water is the largest component of fracking fluids, and has raised concerns about the ecological impacts to aquatic resources, as well as dewatering of drinking water aquifers. A 2011 EPA report estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the US each year – approximately the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities each with a population of 50,000. Oil and gas drilling companies have started reusing and recycling the wastewater, but drillers currently have an exemption from federal law that allows their waste not to be considered hazardous, and they do not rigorously test the waste for toxicity.[iii]

Texas will, of course, continue to develop what is available, but these days it costs more money, the available water is harder to treat, and there is more potential for risk.

Our next article will address the various treatment methods, and innovations and alternatives in water treatment.

[i] Water Use of Texas Water Utilities, Texas Water Development Board, January 1, 2015 http://www.twdb.texas.gov/publications/reports/special_legislative_reports/doc/2014_WaterUseOfTexasWaterUtilities.pdf

[ii] American Water Works Association, Water Conservation Programs— A Planning Manual; https://www.awwa.org/Portals/0/files/publications/documents/M52LookInside.pdf

[iii]   https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Fracking_and_water_consumption