Our Water Matters

Texas Water Day at the Capitol

In a poll recently conducted by Texas 2036, a whopping 89% of those polled said that they would favor spending $5 billion of the state’s $32.7 billion budget surplus to fix aging water and wastewater infrastructure. A staggering 69% of respondents said that they would “strongly favor” such spending. No other issue in the poll received such an overwhelming response, nor did as many respondents express that they would “strongly favor” such spending on anything other than water.

Legislators have taken notice by forming the state’s first-ever Texas Water Caucus with 73 members of the Texas House of Representatives, including our own state representative, Eddie Morales. The caucus’s chairman, Rep. Tracy King, recently opened Texas Water Day at the Capitol to kick off what is hoped to be a legislative session of significant progress on water issues. In his opening remarks, King, who also serves as chairman of the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, emphasized the need to focus on “water security” by ensuring the resilience of our water infrastructure. He also asserted that the Legislature needs to “prioritize investing in water, and I think we have a unique opportunity to do that with the budget surplus that we have.” In outlining the goals of the Water Caucus, King mentioned creating “champions of sustainable water management,” equipping “advocates to support sustainable water management,” and educating “the public about the needs of water infrastructure.”

Texas Water Day continued with a presentation of the water infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Texas scored very poorly, receiving a D+ for our dams, a C- for our drinking water, and a D for our levees and wastewater infrastructure, respectively. Michael Bloom of the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that deteriorating infrastructure is not unique to Texas. In fact, the country’s infrastructure as a whole scored only a C. Despite all the gloomy news, Bloom asserted that “a bad grade will hopefully help to convince people that more investment is needed.”

And the news is definitely gloomy. According to Lara Zent of the Texas Rural Water Association, 70% of water systems in Texas are 20 years old or older and 57% of water systems are 40 years old or older. There is also a capacity challenge with attracting and retaining workers. It is believed that something like a third of the water workforce will be retiring in the next five years.

Another major issue with the state’s water infrastructure is water loss. According to Jennifer Walker of the National Wildlife Federation, average water loss in Texas is about 572,000 acre-feet every year. That’s enough to meet the annual water needs of Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, Laredo and Lubbock combined. Walker encouraged greater investment in water infrastructure to help communities “recover” this lost water. She emphasized that the loss of this water is especially expensive because it’s been treated. This lost water equals lost revenue for systems that need the revenue to eliminate water loss.

Walker went on to assert that legislators should focus on improving water management through conservation, reuse and efficiency. These approaches should be fully exhausted first before we take steps to develop new water supplies because, according to Walker, “If we don’t, we may have water for our communities, but we may not have water for the environment and, in fact, we may not even have water for our communities. We have to really double down on [conservation, reuse, and efficiency].”

Hillary Lilly of the Nature Conservancy talked about nature-based solutions (NBS) or nature-based infrastructure to “slow the water down, spread the water out, and allow the water to soak into the ground.” She emphasized that these sorts of approaches are often passed over in favor of more traditional infrastructure and this needs to change.

Texas Water Day highlighted that our current situation provides a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” because our existing infrastructure is reaching a critical milestone at a time when we happen to have a large budget surplus to address the challenges. You can express your support for increased water infrastructure investment by contacting State Representative Eddie Morales at [email protected] and State Senator Cesar Blanco at [email protected].

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013.