While Texas Plans Pipelines and Reservoirs, Activists Tout the Simpler Path: Conservation

Policymakers in Austin, having finally come to terms immensity of the state's water challenges, are about to throw some serious cash at the issue. But the vast majority of this, more than 96 percent, is going toward building new reservoirs and pipelines.

Trammell S. Crow, among others, has a problem with that. He stood on a wind-blown Winfrey Point this morning, wearing a yellow checked shirt and loud, particolored tie that only a real estate scion could pull off, in support of a new report by Environment Texas calling for fully half of any state water funding to go toward conservation.

Crow -- who lately has split his philanthropic efforts between turning the local Earth Day celebration into one of the nation's largest and trying to boot illegal immigrants out of Farmers Branch -- was joined at White Rock Lake by SMU engineering professor Andrew Quicksall; Richard Grayson, a local fly fishing guide and Texas Rivers Protection Association board member; Jennifer Rubiello, a local organizer for Environment Texas; and Ordinary Citizen/Concerned Mother Tracy Wallace.

Their remarks were all variations on the same theme: our verdant lawns, inefficient agricultural techniques, antiquated power plants, the fracking boom and leaky pipes are quickly sucking our rivers dry.

These problems, Environment Texas contends, really aren't all that hard to remedy. Rubiello used as a model San Antonio, whose educational and conservation efforts have kept water-usage flat even as population has increased by 65 percent. A closer, albeit more modest, example is Arlington, which Rubiello said was able to reduce its water consumption by five percent after installing an electronic leak detection system.

Today's report provides a detailed blueprint on how such efforts can be deployed statewide. The proposals are relatively simple: implement more efficient irrigation and land management practices in agriculture; plant lawns with drought-tolerant local grasses; reuse frack water; build or retrofit power plants to recirculate cooling water; repair water mains; set statewide efficiency standards for toilets, washing machines and other consumer products.

Simple, maybe, but not easy. There's the small matter of money, which the legislature will have to be convinced to divert from the more tangible reservoirs and pipeline projects that are much easier to point to in a reelection campaign. Then there's the equally daunting task of changing a culture that has grown accustomed to cheap and plentiful water and sees virtually unlimited access to it as a basic American freedom.

Asked by KERA's BJ Austin how one goes about changing the zeitgeist, particularly with respect to lush St. Augustine lawns, Grayson had no answer to give.

Quicksall, the SMU professor, offered that it was really a matter of convincing Texans that water-saving efforts go hand-in-hand with their generally conservative philosophy. They're already frugal when it comes to budget matters. Why not extend that to the state's most precious resource?

The benefits could be enormous. ET's report predicts that adopting existing water conservation technologies, implementing conservation programs, and improving agricultural irrigation and land management techniques, could reduce water demand by 900 billion gallons per year by 2020. That's enough to supply the needs of 16 million Texans.

Or we could just do what we've always done and build a whole bunch of new pipelines and reservoirs, further drawing down our already stressed rivers. Texas' booming population will need somewhere to pilot their boats, after all.