Texas’ Increasing Reliance on Conservation

While the threat of water scarcity has always been present, Texas but did not begin water planning at the state level until 1957.  At that time, as part of the policy response to the 1950s drought of record, voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), which was given a mission of planning for future water needs and providing financial assistance for water projects.  Until the 1980s, Texas – like other Western states – tried to solve its unmet water demands primarily by building infrastructure.

To the extent that the State Water Plan (SWP) considered conservation, it did so in terms of the understanding of “conservation” that prevailed in that era.  The inaugural SWP rued that “water so urgently needed for the economy of the State wastes to the Gulf.”  To prevent such waste – to capture water rather than lose it to environmental flows and estuaries – the SWP proposed “additional conservation storage facilities.”

In its second SWP, in 1968, the TWDB again referred to “conservation” in terms of storage capacity:  “The high dams and man-made rivers that stand as monuments to man’s ingenuity and technical skills conserve and distribute the water which is vital to his life and well-being.” Although the SWP stated that it examined “all reasonable alternatives,” it did not propose reducing water usage other than to call for “wise use” of resources.

Rather, the 1968 SWP contended that “[i]mportation of water from out-of-State sources will be essential.”  As an out-of-state source, the SWP proposed the Mississippi River, from which water could be conveyed to West Texas and into New Mexico.  The SWP warned that such importation “must begin no later than 1988.”  Without Mississippi River imports, “retrogression must inevitably occur in some sectors of the State’s economy.”

By the time of the next SWP, in 1984, the period of rapid dam building had closed, and the TWDB started to recommend the sorts of strategies that would fit within contemporary notions of conservation.  Still, the SWP defined conservation somewhat tentatively, as “reduc[ing] the quantity of water used in each function or purpose, insofar as it practical, but not to eliminate any uses.”  It recommended education campaigns to promote conservation but generally left substantive conservation efforts to local governments and the private sector.

In each of the subsequent SWPs – in 1990, 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, and 2012 – the TWDB proposed increasingly ambitious conservation targets.  In 2002, for instance, the SWP recommended that Texas address 13.5 percent of its otherwise unmet water needs by the end the fifty-year planning horizon through additional conservation.  In 2012, the SWP increased that figure to 23.9 percent.

While the SWP has been remarkably accurate at projecting future population growth, it has consistently underestimated conservation.  Past performance is no guarantee of future performance, but the pattern that appears in past SWPs could raise questions about whether the 2012 SWP continues to underestimate the potential for the state to address long-term demand-supply imbalances through conservation.

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