A water crisis is confronting Texas, but experts and innovators are taking bold steps to save agriculture in the Lone Star State. Their story illustrates the challenges of reducing farmers’ dependence on irrigation as well as the promise of new technology to meet these needs.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of agriculture and ranching to the Texas economy. Everything’s bigger here. Over 245,000 farming operations fan out across the state, covering 130 million acres. One in seven Texans works in the ag industry, the third largest in the US after California and Iowa.
That thriving sector is endangered by the depletion of groundwater throughout the state. As the Ogallala aquifer trickles out, farming and ranching will dry up too if they can’t adapt.
The evidence of this desertification is already clear for those with eyes to see. Combined with the needs of a population growing by the millions annually, irrigation draws have reduced median groundwater levels from 40 feet below ground to over 100 feet underground. In 2012, Spicewood Beach, an Austin suburb, became the first town to run out of water.
Some analysts predict Texas could run out of water resources as soon as 2020.
The delicate status of water resources in Texas has galvanized action – particularly in the beleaguered farm sector.
Perhaps the boldest proposal has been the One Water plan. Based on a report commissioned by The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, One Water proposes an integrated water management (IWM) plan.
This water management integration takes place on two levels.
First, it coordinates planning among the different authorities that have operated independently in the past. This fragmented, decentralized approach promoted poor water stewardship. Farmers drew water for irrigation without limit. Municipal authorities pumped aquifers to feed their growing cities. Corporations used water with abandon.
No more. One Water would bring together all water stakeholders and centralize planning. Implemented at the state level, it would force different authorities in different jurisdictions to reckon with the limited supply of water resources. That would facilitate the kind of negotiation and rationing needed to conserve this precious resource.
Second, One Water integrates the different parts of the water cycle in its sustainability programming. Simply trying to survive on less water isn’t a feasible solution, for it isolates only a sliver of the process.
Reforming this approach will treat water use as a holistic process rather than a series of uses. Stormwater is allowed to soak into the ground to support healthy river flows. Efficiency improvements minimize irrigation draws from streams and groundwater. Wastewater is recycled for reuse.
The kind of planning represented by One Water has been taken up by the state. Faced with successive years of severe drought, an expanding population, and a plummeting water table, state authorities developed a statewide water plan in 2017. It’s already starting to yield fruit, as water demands for irrigation are down.
Will Texas be able to support a growing population and a thriving ag industry as its water resources trickle out?
Only time will tell. But the kind of integrated, sustainable planning represented by the state authorities and One Water sponsors might just save Texas–and other states facing water crises–if implemented.