In Texas, there is tremendous variation from one region to the next in current water conservation practices and in long-term water conservation goals.
For planning purposes, the state is divided into 16 regional water planning groups (RWPGs). The two RWPGS that the 2012 State Water Plan (SWP) recommends the greatest percentage of their increased future water supplies from conservation represent the Panhandle and Llano Estacado.
For the Panhandle, the 2012 SPW projects that 85.2 percent of new water supplies will come from improved agricultural conservation and another 0.7 percent will come from improved municipal conservation. For Llano Estacado, the figures are 71.5 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively.
By contrast, the RWPGs for North East Texas and the Lavaca River Basin propose not to use conservation as a supply strategy. They claim that conservation is not cost-effective in their comparatively wet regions.
Of course, water usage for a particular region can be shaped by many factors, including demographics, economics, climate, land use, and the age of the built environment. Arid areas generally use more water per capita than wet areas, for instance, because water users frequently compensate for a lack of precipitation by irrigating.
Even though external and situational factors do exert significant influence over water usage practices, they do not automatically dictate the potential for conservation. In most instances, the conservation strategies in the 2012 SWP do not represent practicable upper limits but rather policy decisions based on the preferences of RWPG stakeholders.
Geography as Destiny
The 2012 SWP ranks the per capita water use as of 2008 for the 40 largest cities in the state. While this ranking provides a snapshot only of average municipal use practices – and per day usage can range significantly between peak and off-peak times of year, and between wet and dry years – it does convey the degree to which policy priorities drive those practices.
Of the five most water-intensive cities on a per capita basis, four are in metropolitan Dallas, with the suburb of Frisco using a state-leading 254 gallons per capita per day (gpcd)– an amount nearly twice as high as for San Angelo and more than 100 gallons per day higher than for El Paso or Houston.
|2008 Residential Usage|
Compared to the Dallas area, water usage in the City of Houston is low, about 134 gallons per day. While Houston has stepped up its conservation efforts, as it has shifted from a reliance on groundwater to surface water, and as it has contended with recent droughts, a joint report by the National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club found that, as late as March 2010, the city did not have a particularly robust conservation program.
In El Paso, which because of its desert setting would be the sort of place likely to use large amounts of water, the 2008 per capita usage was 137, down from more than 200 gpcd two decades earlier. El Paso reduced its water usage through conservation initiatives that have become models for the rest of the state.
Many cities – and the RWPGs encompassing them – could pursue conservation as aggressively as El Paso has, if there were sufficient political will. In Central Texas, for instance, Austin had a 2008 per capita usage of 171 gallons per day – 15 percent higher than the per capita usage in nearby San Antonio and 9 percent higher than in Round Rock.
Within metropolitan Dallas, there is even greater variation. Frisco, Plano, Richardson, and Dallas all had per capita water usage greater than 200 gallons per day in 2008 while Denton, Garland, Lewisville, and Mesquite all had usage of 150 gallons per day or less.
The 2012 SWP forecasts that these differences will continue through the 2060 planning horizon and in some instances grow. Indeed, even as Texas adopts more conservation policies at both the state and local levels, the 2012 SWP projects that in all but 9 of the 40 largest cities, per capita usage will increase in the coming decades. This trajectory would mark a departure from the historical trend that has been underway since the early 1980s of reductions in per capita usage and a break from national patterns under which both total and per capita municipal water usage have declined.
140 gpcd Benchmark
Such increases would also be directly at odds with the state’s water conservation policies. In 2004, the legislatively created Water Conservation Implementation Task Force (since reconstituted as the Water Conservation Advisory Council) submitted a report of proposed water conservation policies to the legislature. Among other things, the task force recommended “a statewide goal to reduce total statewide water demand to an average of 140 gpcd.”
While respecting the diversity of Texas, the task force further recommended that municipalities consider “a minimum annual reduction of one percent in total gpcd, based upon a five-year rolling average, until such time as the entity achieves a total gpcd of 140 or less.” These recommendations establish 140 gpcd as an aspirational, state-sanctioned benchmark for municipal water usage.
According to the 2012 SWP, 11 of the 40 largest cities had gpcds below that benchmark as of 2008 but, by 2060, only 4 will. In at least one instance – that of Austin – the 2012 SWP projects much higher per capita usage than the city itself. In May 2010 – before the Lower Colorado RWPG had finalized its regional plan or the TWDB had assembled the 2012 SWP – the Austin city council voted to reduce gpcd to 140 by 2020. Yet the 2012 SWP estimates that Austin’s gpcd would increase two gallons between 2008 and 2020, from 171 to 173, and by 2060 would drop to only 169.