University Study Finds San Antonio Is Most Water-Vulnerable City

The State Water Plan (SWP) and the impacts of the current drought have painted an unsettling portrait of water in Texas.  And giving still more reason for concern, a new study has found that San Antonio has less water available per capita than any big city in the country.

The University of Florida surveyed metropolitan areas with populations of greater than 100,000.  Its authors started from the premise that cities draw water from two distinct types of sources – runoff and infrastructure.

Runoff includes rainfall and river flows.  Infrastructure accounts for reservoirs, aquifers and imports.  The authors claimed that most water studies focus on runoff water and undervalue infrastructure.

On a national level, this discounting of infrastructure supplies makes aggregate water supply situations seem worse than they are.  On a local level, some humid cities are actually in more precarious positions than they might seem because they have limited per capita storage.

The tri-state water wars revealed Atlanta to be such a city.  As is Miami – which, despite its swampy surroundings, was pegged as having the lowest levels of per capita availability after San Antonio. Equally counter-intuitive findings: Albuquerque scores higher on water availability than Tampa or New York, and Tucson fares better than Chicago or Charleston.

Still, certain core conclusions are predictable.  Aside from tropical Miami, the ten cities with the least amount of per capita water are all in the arid west.  And those ten cities are the most vulnerable of any in the country to water scarcity issues.

 

Rank

Urban   Area

Normalized

 availability

Vulnerability

Population

216

El Paso, TX–NM

0.07

High

674,801

217

Mission Viejo, CA

0.06

High

533,015

218

Riverside–San     Bernardino, CA

0.06

High

1,506,816

219

Salt Lake City, UT

0.05

High

887,650

220

Los Angeles–Long Beach–Santa Ana, CA

0.05

High

11,789,487

221

San Diego, CA

0.05

High

2,674,436

222

San Jose, CA

0.04

High

1,538,312

223

Lincoln, NE

0.04

High

226,582

224

Miami, FL

0.04

High

4,919,036

225

San Antonio, TX

0.04

High

1,327,554

Source: Padowski and Jawitz, Water availability and   vulnerability of 225 large cities in the United States

In Texas, the SWP proposed about $53 billion of new infrastructure.  Lawmakers have filed two bills this session to commit either $1 billion or $2 billion to a new water infrastructure fund.

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and others have hinted that the wish list in the SWP will be prioritized but have not indicated the factors that will be considered.  (The bill that would create the water infrastructure fund mandates that 20 percent of financing be used for conversation or reuse projects.  That provision, however, amounts to more of a set-aside than a declaration of priority.)

Targeted infrastructure improvements – such as the installation of leak detection in pipelines – could help.  But the University of Florida study should serve as a reminder of resource challenges in the West rather than as justifications for additional infrastructure.  While a certain amount of infrastructure is needed to convey and store water, most of these highly vulnerable cities already boast elaborate infrastructure systems.

Indeed, half of the cities are in California – which, with its State Water Project and Central Valley Project, already boasts the most extensive water infrastructure in the world.  That is not to say that California or the other cities do not require additional infrastructure but that infrastructure alone is not the answer to scarcity.

In Central Texas, the HighlandLakes are impressive pieces of infrastructure but are at historically low levels.  In Utah and Arizona, Lake Powell is at half capacity – about a third below its thirty year average.  These reservoirs are wilting not because of inadequate infrastructure but because of drought.

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