By Sharlene Leurig
Sometimes I have to step just over the border of my home state Texas to understand just how conservative we really are. Like recently when I spoke at the Oklahoma Governor’s Water Conference, where the buzz was all about climate change, conservation pricing, environmental flows and the state’s landmark legislation Oklahoma 2060, which set a target of using no more water in 2060 than the state uses today. (By the way, no other state in the union has set such an ambitious goal.) I had to step outside for a second cup of coffee—this is Oklahoma, state of Senator Inhofe?
But sure enough, that’s where Oklahoma’s political dialogue stands when it comes to water. It’s a good thing, too, since (like its neighbor to the south) the state’s groundwater supplies are being quickly outstripped by agricultural pumping, even as its surface water supplies are becoming less reliable thanks to the evaporative losses that come with rising temperatures.
Texans and Oklahomans love to compare their states, and let this be no exception: while Oklahoma has set its target to recognize the limitations of its water supplies, and the adaptability of its people, Texas has defined its dwindling water supplies as a problem in need of money. Lots of money.
Texas envisions adding 9 million acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons) to its supplies. This alone should be no surprise—when it comes to natural resources, our state economic philosophy may be the most supply-side of anywhere. But the amount of money being bandied about on talk radio and at the local fracking pad is pretty staggering: the total cost of adding new reservoirs, desalination plants and pipelines is a cool $53 billion.
Now Texans may love big infrastructure more than most, but we also have the sense to realize there’s not enough economical water in the Gulf of Mexico (or in Oklahoma’s portion of the Red River) to serve our needs if our needs don’t change. According to the 2012 Texas State Water Plan, a full 25% of the state’s future water supplies are projected to come from conservation (though the plan’s details on how this will happen are pretty fuzzy).
On Tuesday, Texas voters passed a constitutional amendment that will move $2 billion from the state’s oil and gas revenue fund to a public water infrastructure fund to be administered by the Governor’s appointees. That decision is a big deal for a number of reasons. First off, the political environment in Texas today isn’t exactly pro-spending, yet this $2 billion is at least an order of magnitude more than any other state is earmarking this year for water. (See related voter story, “Results Mixed on Colorado and Ohio Fracking Ban Initiatives.”)
And a big reason for the support the state’s new water infrastructure fund has received is its unprecedented requirement to set aside 20% of the funds for conservation or reuse projects. For a state with a long love affair with reservoirs, it’s a sign that we may finally be ready to embrace the virtues of making more efficient use of our limited supplies.
What remains to be seen in Oklahoma and Texas alike is how water providers will use price to tamp down water demands to more sustainable levels. Pricing is one of the most effective tools we have to shape water use, but (as this Nat Geo post notes) it also brings with it its own risks since the systems that finance big infrastructure don’t get to walk away from it just because people are using less water (and paying less money into their water providers’ revenue funds).
It will probably take a decade of experimentation and learning before we figure out how best to put pricing to work for water conservation—and a fair amount of consternation from the public officials who have to explain to voters why they are paying more money for less water. So Oklahoma and Texas both have a lot of learning to do on how to lower water demands to the levels they plan for.
And for the time being, Texas remains firm in its resolve to ignore climate change—even after the 2011 heat wave proved how devastating prolonged temperature extremes are to the state’s surface water supplies, which lost stratospheric volumes to evaporation (in the Lubbock area, for example, reservoir evaporation during the 2011 drought spiked to 100 inches in a single year. On that point, I’m amazed to find myself referring my fellow Texans to a model of climate adaptation to the north: Oklahoma.
Sharlene Leurig is the director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Program at Ceres, a nonprofit organization mobilizing business and investor leadership on global sustainability challenges. Follow her on Twitter @sleurig.