One More Generation
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
The “rude bridge” around here is in Lee County. Rather than a store of weapons, the “embattled farmers” there, and in neighboring Bastrop County, are defending the long-term sustainability of their water supply, and thus their own economic future. The British Redcoats in this analogy are the “water hustlers” and their allies who are attempting to gain the ability to pump the aquifer storing that water supply at unsustainable rates, which will result in large drawdown, and eventual depletion, of that aquifer as a usable water supply. In short, Bastrop and Lee counties are seen as water “colonies”.
One ally in particular, Hays County, has entered into an agreement with one of those water hustlers to create an unsustainable draw on that aquifer. Purportedly this is to meet the future water needs in Hays County, on the presumption its recent growth trend will continue for the next few decades. This is simply a taking from the future of the “colonies” to secure their own. That’s why King George was taxing the American colonies, right? You might say, therefore, that a shot has been fired in the Great Texas Water War. How far and wide that shot is heard remains to be seen.
According to the groundwater model which is accepted by the Texas Water Development Board as an accurate picture of the impact on this aquifer, the drawdown which the currently demanded pumpage would create indicates that the Simsboro Aquifer in Lee County would be significantly dewatered, headed toward depletion, in one more generation. And that is just considering the water to be exported, leaving little to support economic development in “the colonies”. Indeed, it is projected that, if the current drought in this region endures, Bastrop and Lee counties will have a water supply deficit for their own municipal needs even without that water being exported.
Coincidentally, one more generation is how far my “horizon of explicit concern” for the well being of regional society has just been extended, with the recent birth of my first grandchild. Which raises the question, what would I have actors like Hays County do to assure there is water available to sustain a healthy society in this region through that child’s lifetime? Isn’t it a function of government to take actions to assure a secure water supply for its citizens on into the future?
Sure, but does that really need to be done at the expense of the economic future of neighboring counties, and in a manner that is not sustainable? Understand that Hays County feels it needs water from Lee County in order to serve an expanding population over the next 50 years, but that population will not – everyone hopes at least – just go away then. Rather it will still be there, continuing to need water for the 50 years beyond that, and so on into the future. So when they suck Lee County dry, then what? A pipeline from the Great Lakes?
It should be quite clear, therefore, that the extractive once-though 19th century water infrastructure model that Hays County – and all the rest of regional society – seems intent on perpetuating simply cannot be sustained in this region, certainly not by actions like “mining” the Simsboro Aquifer. This hits on the continuing theme of this blog, that we need to transcend the mental model that (mis)informs that course of action and transition to a water infrastructure model that will lead us toward, rather than ever further away from, sustainable water.
As reviewed in previous posts, a sustainable water infrastructure model will impart deep conservation – durable increases in water use efficiency that are inherent in the water management methods being employed. Hays County, and similarly situated entities concerned about future water supply, could be leaders in moving society toward sustainable water, rather than ever further away with the sort of essentially “stopgap” (from a long-term perspective) projects like the water grab they are pursuing – really a slow-motion rearranging of the deck chairs as the ship goes down.
What we are seeing here is a classic “tragedy of the commons”. Indeed it is an enduring tragedy of the human condition that what is perceived to be needed for short-term well being, particularly of the large fiscal interests that exert great influence on our controlling institutions, is rather blindly pursued without much regard to the long-term well being of society. So understanding that short-term interests will invariably prevail over the long-term implications, the task at hand is to show how those short-term interests can be adequately served in a manner that would not run us into a box canyon – having promoted, in effect, a population in this region by drawing down its water supply to the point it is effectively depleted, leaving that population high and dry.
It should be understood that, besides its lack of sustainability, there are fiscal reasons to question that course of action. Consider the pitfalls of pursuing a long-distance “California-style” water transfer scheme in a place like Hays County. It seems to be just presumed that the water price this would induce would be deemed “affordable”, perhaps simply because it is presumed that no other options exist, thus since people need water they will pay whatever that price turns out to be. But is that growth actually “manifest destiny”, whatever it will cost?
The purported need for this additional water supply is to support a projected growth in population, in the case of Hays County a projected 4-fold growth by 2040. It should be clear that the upward-trending “J-curve” growth that Hays County has experienced over the last few decades is not any more sustainable than is the over-pumping of the Simsboro Aquifer. Indeed, that growth is predicated on simple extrapolation of historical trends which were based on societal conditions over the period during which those trends were observed. The State Water Plan, which projects the populations upon which future water demand is predicated, states, “… the county’s population is projected one year at a time by applying historical growth rates, survival rates, and net migration rates to individual cohorts ….” [emphasis added]
Much of the projected growth would be due to net migration to/from the area. That decision to come, or to stay or go, would be predicated on a number of factors, the cost of living being among them, and a hugely inflated cost of water would impact upon that. But perhaps more basic is the prospect of a job in that area, and the cost of water will be a factor in a job creator choosing to establish operations in an area. Thus the future cost of water imposed by pursuing that long-distance water transfer scheme would seem to be a very important consideration, one which may significantly alter the conditions on which the growth projections are based.
In the particular case of Hays County, it does not appear that much has been done to evaluate what impact this would have on the cost of water there. Hays County Judge Bert Cobb has stated that no plans have been evaluated to even pipe the water to Hays County, much less to treat and distribute this water within the county. Indeed, the $5 million that Hays County agreed to pay their water hustler ally reportedly is just a “reservation fee” and the price of water at the wellhead is not even clear. So at present it appears that Hays County does not know the cost of water this supply scheme would create.
I was involved in a study of water supply alternatives conducted by Hays County in the late 1980’s which projected water prices due to importation schemes from sources much closer than Lee County of up to $20/thousand gallons. In a study conducted by Hays County a couple years ago exploring water supply options for the western portion of the county, the price to import water from a relatively nearby source into the Wimberley Valley ran above $10/thousand gallons, even though the water treatment costs were not accounted for in that analysis. These prices compare with those typically charged at present by water supply entities in Hays County in the range of $3/thousand gallons. So it can be anticipated that scheme to raid the Simsboro Aquifer would lead to severe rate shock in Hays County.
An issue is that such prices increases would not kick in until the investments have been made and the water starts flowing into the county. Again, Hays County’s presumption is that this water is “needed” to enable the projected growth, but those investments – pretty much an “all or none” proposition – would have been incurred prior to that growth being in place, on speculation so to speak. The price signal that would urge pursuit of alternate strategies would lag the decision to impose the higher prices. Thus, a possibility would be that they built it but no one came – the very high cost of water deflected growth elsewhere.
This brings us back to the argument that we should first pursue those alternate strategies – a sustainable water infrastructure model, a more resilient, more decentralized infrastructure, imparting deep conservation. A model that can be implemented only as required to serve imminent development, thus matching required investments with actual growth. The central questions about any such strategy are of course, where will the water come from, and what will that water cost?
As reviewed in previous posts, a fundamental transformation of the form and function of the water infrastructure system can “wring” considerable more function out of existing supplies. And it is argued that this “new water” could be made available while saving money, because the sustainable water infrastructure model would be more cost efficient – as reviewed, for example, in “It’s the infrastructure, stupid”, in “A $13 million failure of imagination in Center Point” and in “Motherless in Bee Cave.” Imagine indeed if growth in irrigation demand were – very cost efficiently – supplied by distributed wastewater reuse instead of imported water. And as pointed out in “Irrigation efficiency – a new ‘reservoir’ for your city”, there is huge potential for relieving current demand for irrigation water, freeing up that amount of existing water supply for growth. And then there is a move to a more regionally appropriate landscaping ethic, centered on native plants that do not require much irrigation, even in severe drought, which could also free up a considerable amount of the existing water supply.
All this may pale, however, in comparison with a move to a “zero net water” development model. Under this concept, water supply would be centered on building-scale rainwater harvesting, rather than on the watershed-scale rainwater harvesting model which composes all of our conventional water supply systems. The inherent efficiency at which rainfall collected directly off a roof can be converted to a water supply usable by humans is close to 100%, and there is no transmission loss in a building-scale system. In the watershed-scale system, only 10-15% of rainfall onto a watershed typically makes it into an aquifer or a reservoir, then there is very high evaporation loss from reservoirs – up to 50% is reported – and considerable transmission loss in distribution of the water to points of use – 15% loss is considered excellent by the water industry, and much higher losses are commonly experienced. So due to that large increase in capture and delivery efficiency, the building-scale rainwater harvesting system can essentially “grow” the water supply in proportion to water demand, one building at a time.
Of course, the building-scale rainwater harvesting system will have implications for building design. In Hays County, for example, modeling indicates that a roofprint of about 4,500 sq. ft. would be required for a typical 3-bedroom home to be essentially water-independent; that is, needing a very limited amount of backup supply from the watershed-scale system only during the most severe drought years. The house plus a garage and covered patios/porches in “standard” one-story house plans would typically provide 3,000-3,500 sq. ft. of roofprint, so would require additional roofprint to be built on. And typically having an even smaller roofprint, two-story houses would clearly be problematic under this concept. Multi-family housing, as presently configured, would also be hard pressed to provide roofprint commensurate with water demand. Then too storage cisterns impose a considerable cost, and take up space. All that would have implications for development style, and so would require some tinkering with prevailing development models. How cost efficient that water supply strategy may be would depend on the setting – sustainability of groundwater in the face of continuing development, distance of the development from an existing waterline, etc. – and of course the price of using instead a piped-in water supply, which as noted may become way higher than currently prevailing prices.
On the other hand, with a typical occupancy of only 2 persons, water demand in seniors-oriented developments – which may be a considerable portion of new development in Hays County – would be supported by the roofprint typically provided by a one-story house plus garage. The same would be so for many commercial and institutional buildings. Indeed, as asserted in “First ‘Logue in the Water”, employing some combination of building-scale rainwater harvesting, condensate capture, and project-scale wastewater reclamation and reuse, those types of buildings would draw no water from the watershed-scale systems. That would relieve a significant portion of demand due to growth, and as a bonus would also blunt stormwater impacts in those sorts of projects, which typically entail high impervious cover, the roofprint being a significant portion of it.
Finally, as also noted in “First ‘Logue in the Water”, the energy demands of all this decentralized infrastructure would be significantly lower than required to run the prevailing infrastructure model. The low lift out of a cistern and the very short distance to the point of use impart drastically lower energy requirements for building-scale rainwater harvesting systems. Likewise, the greatly shortened water loops in a decentralized concept wastewater reclamation and reuse system would greatly reduce energy demanded by those systems. Since it takes water to make energy – this is the so-called “water-energy nexus” – moving to the sustainable water infrastructure model would save a lot of that water too.
As noted, places like Hays County could be the leaders in moving society toward a more sustainable water future in this region. Given the projected 4-fold population increase, that implies a lot of the growth would be on presently vacant land, to which no services have been extended, thus there is no sunk cost in conventional water and wastewater systems that need to be respected. In large part then they have a “blank canvas”. They can choose to “paint by numbers” and repeat in rote manner the prevailing extractive once-through 19th century infrastructure model, adding on the long-distance transfer of water from a source that would not be sustainable over the long term in a desperate attempt to extend that model’s usefulness one more generation. Or they can choose to move boldly into the 21st century and create a sustainable water future.