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A Postmodern Water Frontier

While many large cities in Texas are trying to grab water to support massive growth, there are some that have adopted promising water-conservation practices that offer a glimpse of what an alternative, more sustainable, statewide urban water-use policy could look like.

detail of an artwork depicting a cowboy filling a hat with waterillustration pablo iglesias,

Water activists look to San Antonio as a leader. The city was forced to change its water-use practices following a 1991 Sierra Club lawsuit that claimed that San Antonio had sucked out so much groundwater from the Edwards Aquifer that eight species protected by the Endangered Species Act were at risk. San Antonio reduced its water use from nearly 225 gallons per capita per day in the 1990s to 127 gallons in 2013, a 45 percent decline in 30 years. While new low-flow toilets and faucets and appliances helped, so did stringent outside watering restrictions – currently watering is allowed only once a week – enforced by off-duty police officers awarding stiff tickets.

“As we go on into the extended drought, there’s a lot of public support to make the restrictions permanent,” says Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. Make once-a-week watering a state law, and landscaping with drought-resistant native plants from Texas’s beloved “frontier heritage” becomes attractive, she says.

San Antonio already leads the nation in reuse of treated wastewater, circulating it through purple pipes to industries, commercial lawns, and golf courses. But in January, the city took reuse to another level, applying for a state permit that would allow it to retain ownership of 50,000 acre-feet of treated wastewater all the way down the Guadalupe River to San Antonio Bay, in effect delivering it to the blue crabs and whooping cranes. The city of Houston also has signed an agreement to return half its treated wastewater to the Trinity River that flows into Galveston Bay, home to productive oyster and shrimp fisheries.

At the state level, many Texas legislators are rethinking reservoir-building. Ken Kramer, longtime water policy lobbyist for the Sierra Club, notes the change. “They’ve seen reservoirs go bone dry in West Texas. One legislator I know, faced with a proposal to build a new reservoir, bluntly asked, ‘How will you guarantee the water will actually be there?’” Kramer explains that many conservative Texas legislators “try to avoid using the words ‘climate change’ because of the Tea Party, but see it as real and are taking steps to accommodate it.”

As an alternative to building reservoirs, Texas could capture river water in wet years, then pump it underground in what’s called “aquifer recharge.” Desalination is also an option. San Antonio, for instance, plans to radically increase its desalination of brackish water. The city is discussing plans with several firms to mine the leftover brine from the desalination process: The companies can extract minerals from the brine and return the wastewater to the city.

Then there’s rainwater harvesting, which has become a growing industry in Texas. Companies are beginning to see rainwater harvesting for toilets, cooling systems, and landscaping as an economically feasible way to meet federal water pollution standards for storm-water discharge. “Seventy-five years ago every farm house in Texas had a cistern for rainwater,” says Paul Lawrence, president of the Texas Rainwater Catchment Association. “What we would like is for rainwater harvesting to regain its status as an acceptable water supply.”

Texas’ infamous conservatism, while impeding recognition of climate change, nevertheless can help win support for these alternative water policies. For one, treating wastewater for reuse costs less than reservoir and pipeline construction. Reservoir construction also requires state use of eminent domain laws to seize property, an action bitterly resisted by conservatives. Rainwater catchment, in contrast, fits well into Texan values of self-reliance and autonomy.

Even Texas’s much beloved frontier identity can be of help here. Back in the glory days, neither the famed Ranger captains nor the trailblazing ranchers leading cattle drives north to Kansas bothered to water and mow the grass between adventures. While some contemporary politicians embrace a big yard as an entitlement – Attorney General Greg Abbott drilled a well in his yard to bypass Austin’s yard-watering restrictions – it’s not the “true” old Texas way.


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