Op-ed by Tom Hegemier

With supplies depleted by drought, the population growing daily and few large water projects in our immediate future, new development must minimize their water demands to protect the lakes, aquifers, and rivers. The counties surrounding the rapidly growing major cities will play a huge role in how we wisely use or diminish our water supplies and in the end determine the State’s economic attractiveness to the nation.

Many developers chose to build in county jurisdictions to lower costs and minimize permitting requirements. A recent Texas Monthly article underscored this changing development pattern by noting that suburb population now constitutes 20% of our population, up from 10% in 1990.

Most counties have limited development criteria that can lead to a “boom-town” atmosphere with one outcome being newly created high water demands as large lots dominate the landscape. Often, outdoor water use is more than half the total demand and can negatively affect groundwater tables and lake levels. In many areas, homeowners drill deeper wells to chase the water, yet the building continues at a breakneck pace.

Some say that groundwater conservation districts can manage groundwater effectively, yet we are frequently reminded of their lack or jurisdiction, funding, and powers to protect aquifer systems. Also, there is uncertainty in their ability to protect groundwater as recent court decisions have muddled the picture, with future litigation probable to define their ultimate success or failure in managing aquifer levels and protecting springs.

Texas residents and businesses cannot afford to hope for drought ending rains or major water supply projects that will meet their needs. New projects such as desalination, aquifer storage and recovery, and large groundwater transfer projects such as San Antonio’s proposed $3.4 billion 140-mile pipeline can take years to build and significantly increase monthly water bills. Even the SWIFT program noted that it received $5.5 billion in project applications, yet has $2 billion available.

To ensure sustainable and affordable water supplies tomorrow county government needs the tools and authority to incentivize water smart development today. Regulations are one answer but can limit design innovation, become complicated, and difficult to enforce in many growing communities. Incentive based approaches rooted in common sense methods can significantly shrink water use from each new home and business and generate large water savings.

A recent study found that if just half the new homes built in Travis County between now and 2040 planted colorful low water use landscapes, nearly 30,000 acre-feet per (about 10 billion gallons) year of water could be kept in Lake Travis, the primary water supply for Central Texas. The amount of savings is comparable to large water supply projects and comes at no cost to rate payers.

To encourage this and other water saving practices across the state, counties and local governments can provide reduced permit fees, fast-track permits, rainwater collection tax incentives, and reduced stormwater infrastructure requirements as less runoff occurs with deeper soils and native vegetation. The Homebuilder Association of Austin (HBA) recognizes the importance of robust water supplies to ensure business stability and is drafting conservation landscaping criteria. The City of Georgetown recently adopted conservation landscaping measures with HBA supporting the change in development practices.

The Texas Water Development Board should aggressively connect with counties and local governments near rapidly urbanizing areas to help them implement model ordinances, promote incentives, and offer simple design criteria to minimize water use from each new home and business. The State currently provides water conservation information but needs additional resources to help communities adopt these measures for pennies on the dollar when compared to major new supply projects.

It’s not just another conservation education program; it’s a hands-on technical assistance effort that is sustained to shrink the growth in water demand. The State could create a program much like the successful “Don’t Mess with Texas” program of the 80’s. How about a “Don’t Drain Texas Rivers” effort that could work through the river authorities to bring the tools to counties and local government? If Texans can spend millions to reduce highway trash, shouldn’t a similar amount be expended to protect our water supplies, rivers, and jobs?

Having each new development use as little as water possible today can safely yield more houses tomorrow, stabilize water supplies, lower future water rates, and enhance environmental health. To help make water-smart development happen, the State should actively support local governments to create incentive based programs that don’t use a big stick but offer the right carrots.

Tom Hegemier is a senior water resources engineer at RPS and the chair of the Central Texas Land Water Sustainability Forum.