“YOU can’t create water, just like people can’t create gold or coal or oil. That’s nature’s business,” said John DeLaney, a pecan farmer in Comanche, Texas. “You might be able to conserve it.” But when I asked the logical follow-up question—whether he himself is a conservationist—Mr DeLaney demurred. “I don’t know what you mean by conservationist.” “Do you try to conserve water when you’re irrigating?” I asked. “Well certainly! Anybody with any sense does that,” he said, and explained that, if you had a three-month supply of food in your icebox and knew it had to last you three months, you would naturally ration your snacking.
One of the interesting aspects of researching Texas’s looming water issues—more on which in the coming print edition—is that on this issue some of the usual political divides are not so much bridged as simply moot. As Mr DeLaney says, anybody with any sense can see that the state is parched. Most of Texas has been blanketed in a severe drought all year. Crops are dying, cattle are being sold off, cracks have opened up in the ground, and one town has actually started recycling its sewer water for drinking. But even if it started pouring tomorrow, the issue is to some extent structural: the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) projects that, because the state’s population is growing and its available supplies are dwindling, the state will need an additional 8.3m acre-feet of water by 2060—a nearly 30% increase in demand.
Under such conditions, there is little room for ignoring the issue, even if the cost of accessing more water will be considerable and even if the water experts have a tendency to talk about climate change more than is otherwise considered acceptable to some Texans. The TWDB’s draft water plan for 2012 puts the cost of recommended improvements at more than $53 billion, and is candid about the impacts of climate variability: “If temperatures rise and precipitation decreases, as projected by climate models, Texas would begin seeing droughts in the middle of the 21st century that are as bad or worse as those in the beginning or middle of the 20th century.”
Acceptance, of course, is not as good as action, and whether Texas will realise its goals with regard to water remains to be seen. The state doesn’t have $53 billion laying around. But perhaps the markets can be invoked to realise some gains. A statewide election today includes a couple of ballot initiatives designed to address the long-term water outlook; one of them, Proposition 8, would offer landowners a property tax break for implementing certain conservationist measures—an attempt to use incentives to override inertia.
And if the markets are not enough, then maybe some muscle can be used. Troy Fraser, a Republican state senator from Horseshoe Bay and chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, says that he’s been telling oil and gas guys they need to clean up the water they use so it can be used again—fracking a gas well requires about a million gallons of freshwater a pop—and that if they won’t do it voluntarily, they could face some new legislation in the next session. He took a stern view of their complaints about the burdens of doing so: “It’s not a matter of not being cost-competitive. It’s just they wouldn’t make as much money.” Manufacturers, he allowed, have a more serious complaint; if water becomes more expensive in Texas, it might be cheaper for factories to move to soggier states. Still, Mr Fraser has a response for them. “The response is, there’s a finite amount of water available,” he says. Firm but fair, and an increasingly common view. Out west, as they say, whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over. It may also be that water is worth fighting for.
Author: E.G. | AUSTIN
Source: The Economist