Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On "Water in Texas" by Andrew Samson ****

Fred Powledge's Water said at one point that Texas had one of the best water management plans in the country. After reading Samson's book, I'm not so sure. Many of the same problems that come to the fore in Powledge's work exist in Texas as well, as one might expect, but Texas hasn't exactly been great at managing the resource.

Texas is a strange state, at least I found it so when I lived there, and I'm sure a few other people would say the same. It's sort of southern, sort of midwestern, sort of western--really, it's just Texas. And it's water has the kind of unique dynamic as well. The eastern part of the state is wet; the western part is a desert. (Actually, in that sense, Texas isn't unlike California, with its water in the north and its desert in the south.) Part of that unique dynamic is the result of history and the way in which Texas's water laws came into being. The eastern United States largely has riparian water right laws--anyone on the river has rights to use it; the western United States has water laws based on a Spanish system of prior appropriation (the first to claim/buy the rights to the water owns it, even if someone else happens to come and live right next to it later).

This puts two seeming systems into great conflict. The reality in Texas, however, is less a conflict than I had been led to suppose from Powledge's text. For the most part, in the past few decades, Texas has converted almost wholly to a system of prior appropriation, with only a few minor riparian laws still hanging on.

Where Texas really fails, however, is in its regulation of groundwater. In fact, while lots of laws apply to surface water, pretty much groundwater can be had by whoever owns the land and rights. This poses some problems, since groundwater isn't inexhaustible, and groundwater often affects how much surface water there actually is.

Some other things I learned and hadn't thought much about before in terms of conserving water: (1) Municipality reuse of water actually tends to mean that there will be less water for those downstream. I've always thought of reuse as a good thing, but as the author points out, if you have rights to 100 cubic feet of water and pass 80 percent back into the stream, that leaves 80 cf for the next city, plus whatever else comes into the river in between. Technically, you may have rights to the 100 cubic feet and use all of it, but that 80 still gets spit out from sewage or whatever. Now, if your city decides instead to take that 80 and use it again to water lawns or something, then less gets passed on.

(2) The problem with desalination isn't just the expense. There's also the issue of what to do with the saltier water that's left over. It would be one thing if solids and liquids separated completely, but desalination usually only claims a percentage of the water as fresh. The rest is water that is even more salty or brackish than it was before. And that means pollution wherever it ends up.

So what's the scary part for Texas? Well, it's five-year plans, built around the 2060 plan, seem like a good start, but there are issues. Reuse means more water for some, less for others. Overuse means less water for environmental concerns (such as keeping bays and estuaries with an appropriate mix of salt and fresh water so that organisms that depend on them can thrive). Groundwater is in danger of being overpumped, and much of that water is from the vast but limited Ogallala aquifer, which isn't replenishable in the near term. Samson, in his cool-headed specificity, actually makes water seem like more of a concern than than Powledge in his hysteria.

The book itself is, as the subtitle notes, an introduction. There isn't a lot of narrative here, but there are lots of beautiful pictures and graphs. Most of the book is devoted to laying out river regions and then Gulf Shore bays, but the most interesting material to me came in the later chapters, on law, on planning, on whether there is enough water, on what's in the water, and on what water's worth.

It's the latter that also proves to be an interesting question. We pay little for it, but obviously, the answer is one that inevitably is politically charged. Do we count survival of shrimp in the cost of water? How much is a boater's usage worth? And so on.

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