Hey Dallas, Don't Get Used to that Cheap Water

An exemplar of the sod-farming belt that cuts through Dallas.
An exemplar of the sod-farming belt that cuts through Dallas.

We've had it good, no doubt about it. Ever since the drought of the '50s, when Dallas water planners set forth, constructing and acquiring the rights to reservoirs that would feed the city's growth for the coming decades, we haven't had to worry. Even as Lake Travis contracted to a muddy puddle in 2011, the driest year in Texas history, and small towns like Groesbeck grew desperate as the Navasota River withered, Dallas sat confidently, just east of the 100th meridian, where moist Gulf air supplies an ample network of pipelines and reservoirs.

That probably won't change anytime soon, says Ronald Kaiser, the chairman of Texas A&M's Water Project, dedicated to the production and distribution of potable water to rural Texas communities. There's always a "but," though. "The good news is Dallas is relatively drought-proof," he says. "The bad news is water is going to become more expensive."

How much more expensive -- 20, 30, 40 percent -- is difficult to divine. One thing, however, is certain as Dallas seeks to acquire water rights further east: The water will be pumped uphill. Sounds like a primitive problem, but think about -- all those pump stations, using all that electricity to sluice the water up a gradient over hundreds of miles.

"The transport cost of pumping that water uphill will be very expensive," Kaiser says. "Water is cheaper if it flows downhill to you. It's heavy; we're talking about 9 pounds a gallon."

We can stave this off, Kaiser says, and the most obvious answer is conservation. According to the Texas Water Development Board, Dallas is fifth in per capita water consumption in the state, due in no small part to our renowned affinity for sod farming. We can do it voluntarily, by, for example, ripping up those verdant beds of St. Augustine and planting native grasses and instituting permanent watering restrictions.

The only surefire way, Kaisers explains, is through rate increases. "The cheapest way to bring about conservation is pricing. But if you talk to any elected official, they're trying the educational route," he says. "Maybe you'll bring about a 3- to 5-percent drop, but they usually work short time and don't bring about fundamental change.

"Economists say, if you want to do it, increase the price of water." In other words, assign it a cost that reflects its essential value and the scarcity that is sure to come when water planners are forced to forage even further afield and when climate change induces even more violent swings in Texas' increasingly arid weather.

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