Statewide water shortage threatens Texas economy, population growth

Joshua Fechter

Austinites hit by the downpour this week may not realize Texas faces a water shortage that threatens the state’s long-term ability to provide water for citizens and businesses.

Dan Hardin, water resource planning director at the Texas Water Development Board, said the state’s economy would lose $12 billion annually if current drought conditions continue and the state fails to enact legislation that would address the statewide water shortage. If conditions worsen, the state’s economy would lose $116 billion per year during the 2060s.

“That’s lost income to farmers, manufacturers, employees of those businesses that might lose jobs because of businesses’ inability to operate … it’s lost personal income,” Hardin said.

Hardin said the state’s water supply is not keeping up with increased demand caused by the state’s growing population. He said the supply is projected to lose 1.75 million acre-feet of water, or 570.5 billion gallons, by 2060. One acre-foot is equivalent to approximately 326,000 gallons.

The state’s current water supply is about 17 million acre-feet and is projected to drop to about 15 million by the 2060s.

At the same time, Hardin said demand for water is expected to increase from about 18 million acre-feet to 22 million by the 2060s.

The state’s population is projected to grow from 26 million to about 46 million by 2060, but a projected 1.5 million people would not move to Texas if the state does not address the need for water infrastructure, Hardin said.

“If we don’t have water supplies, we won’t have that population growth,” Hardin said.

In response to ongoing drought conditions, the development board crafted the 2012 State Water Plan, which calls for $53 billion over 50 years to fund water infrastructure and conservation projects throughout the state.

Under the plan, projects would focus on three areas: conservation and re-use of existing water supplies without developing new water sources; the development of infrastructure to manage and deliver existing water supplies to areas in need; and developing new supplies through desalination and tapping more groundwater supplies and building reservoirs.

The state’s growing population and inadequate water infrastructure are not the only obstacle standing in the way of eradicating the state’s water shortage. State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said rising temperatures, which result in greater evaporation rates, will also contribute to the depletion of water
supplies statewide.

Nielsen-Gammon said although rainfall in Texas has increased over the past century, climate models predict that annual rainfall will decrease by 2060.

“It’s hard to say whether [the models] are wrong about them or if the trend will reverse itself,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “It’s too early to tell.”

Texas lawmakers have sought to address the state’s water infrastructure needs during the current legislative session. In his State of the State Address in January, Gov. Rick Perry advocated using $3.7 billion from the state’s $12 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, nicknamed the Rainy Day Fund, to fund water infrastructure projects in addition to transportation infrastructure.

Legislators have filed a number of bills to fund water infrastructure projects statewide.

One proposal, passed by the House late last month, would create the State Water Implementation Fund, which would take $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to help finance the development board’s projects through bonds. The Senate is considering a similar proposal.

Hardin said drought conditions, particularly conditions the state endured in 2011, focused attention on the state’s infrastructure and may help the state change its attitude in how it addresses water issues in the future.

“Most of us grew up believing water is bountiful and rivers will always run full, but that’s not the case,” Hardin said. “Water’s a limited resource, and we need to recognize that it should be valued.”