State Water Planners are Giving Lip Service to Conservation. Environmental Groups Want Them to Do More.

One of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in Austin this legislative season is that the state needs to take major steps to meet the state's long-term water needs. The arithmetic -- exploding population + historic drought + increasingly stressed water supply -- is simply too stark to ignore. The momentum right now is behind proposals to set aside $2 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund to pay for future water projects.

The consensus starts to break down when it comes to how much of Texas' water needs will be met through conservation. The state's recently updated water plan, which forecasts usage and supply over the next half century, is actually mildly ambitious on that front, calling for reductions in water usage to account for 24 percent of needed water supplies. Another 10 percent would come from recycled water.

That's the plan, anyway, but when it comes to what state water planners actually plan on funding, conservation barely registers.

Earlier this week, The Associated Press published the Texas Water Development Board's prioritized wish list of $8.3 billion in water projects.

In North Texas, the list includes $2.3 billion in pipeline projects to bring water from existing reservoirs to the city of Dallas and the Tarrant Regional Water District, $901.5 million for two new reservoirs, and a measly $1.2 million for conservation efforts. Statewide, the conservation plans are more substantial, but only slightly, totaling just 3.3 percent of the wish list.

That, says Environment Texas director Luke Metzger, is ridiculous.

The list of priorities proves that the state is "just giving lip service to conservation," Metzger said. Water planners are apparently stuck in the outdated paradigm that meeting water needs requires building lots of dams and reservoirs when in fact it's cheaper, easier and better for the environment to simply not use the water in the first place.

There's a laundry list of conservation measures that Metzger suggests would be a better use of cash. In cities, there could be sprinkler system audits, repair of leaking water pipes, turf replacement programs to swap thirsty St. Augustine for native grasses, regulations on water usage of commercial washing machines, and so on. There are also huge potential savings in agriculture (irrigation improvements, lined irrigation ditches, metering improvements) and the energy industry (more water-efficient power plants and the recycling of frack water).

Environment Texas will be releasing a report later this month on what portion of the state's future water needs can be met through conservation, but here's a hint: It's a lot more than the 24 percent the water plan calls for.

For now, Metzger says he's getting behind a pair of bills introduced yesterday by Senator Jose Rodriguez of El Paso that would require that a third of state water plan funding go toward conservation.

That's less than the 50-percent figure Environment Texas would prefer, but it's still probably a bit optimistic. The legislative momentum is behind bills filed in the Senate by Troy Fraser and in the House by Alan Ritter. Those would set aside 10 percent and 20 percent for conservation, respectively, both of which are a lot less than half.

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