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Water for Texas 2012 - Part III

By Milan J. Michalec BCC Contributor

(Author's note: The third part of this series introduces the concept of water conservation not only to reduce cost, but also to benefit all users of ground and surface water within the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer system.)

The 2012 State Water Plan proposes a number of expensive, long-term, large-scale water projects. However, we do have other alternatives to fill the existing shortfalls that can be deployed right now. The highest return on any investment in water is literally under our feet - our land.
Open spaces can be valued not only for aesthetics but for their contribution to the water supply as they enhance both water quality and quantity locally as well as many miles away. Good land stewardship means good water whether it is on the surface or under the ground.
Conservation easements
Citizens can support landowners in their efforts by purchasing conservation easements as San Antonio has done. The taxpayer approved, sales tax funded, Edwards Aquifer Protection Program has invested $135 million to preserve 97,000 acres in the Edwards recharge zone.
Improving the quantity and quality of this recharge in turn reduces the demand on non-Edwards sources - the most common approach used by SAWS to meet the present and future needs of San Antonio.
This is particularly true when one of those sources is the Trinity Aquifer - the primary source of water for much of the Hill Country. This aquifer is part of an inter-connected system of aquifers described by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as the Edwards Aquifer, the Trinity Aquifer and the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer - also known as the Plateau Aquifer.
Lacking access to tax dollars, a number of land trusts seek to encourage landowners in the Hill Country to protect their property from being developed by offering federal tax savings. To date, the Cibolo Land Trust has arranged for 20,000 acres in Kendall County to be saved from development for perpetuity.
These efforts go far to keep the seeps and springs of Bandera, Kerr, Kendall, Comal, Blanco and Hays counties flowing - the sources of the Medina, Guadalupe and Blanco Rivers or Cypress and Cibolo Creeks, waters that are the source of the character of the Hill Country everyone so greatly appreciates.
In turn, this also improves the quality and quantity of the water that recharges the Edwards Aquifer through locations in and around Bexar County.
Inter-formational flow
A review of the recently published Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan describes the relationship between the Edwards and Trinity Aquifers very well. It notes that losing streams in the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone, an area that is actually above the Trinity Aquifer, have a greater connection to the Edwards Aquifer than previously thought.
Dye tracer studies conducted in north Bexar County show the connection between the two aquifers is "prolific." Furthermore, though most recharge to the Edwards Aquifer comes directly from rainfall, a significant quantity of groundwater can be traced to inter-formational flow from the Trinity Aquifer.
To avoid taking a financial sledgehammer to drive in a proverbial nail, the cheapest and quickest way to have more water available is simply to conserve it. State water planners are counting on us, literally counting by the gallon, to conserve more water in the future.
Accurate measurement
Crucial to meaningful conservation is the ability to measure it accurately. The gallon per capita per day is the common metric used by municipalities to measure how much water each person may use each day. However, due to a variety of factors, this metric has proven to be unreliable.
Similar problems exist in trying to apply this population-based metric in measuring water conservation in other such sectors such as agriculture or industry.
In enacting SB 181, by early 2013, the Texas Legislature has directed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and TWDB to develop the methodology, guidance and required programs or programs that will be needed to accurately measure the use of water throughout all sectors. By 2015, TWDB is to provide the first report based on these activities.
Restricted use not
By 2060, the State Water Plan forecasts that 24 percent of all the water that will be required to meet anticipated demand is planned to come from the conservation measures. Municipal users account for about 7 percent of this number and the conservation of water used for irrigation purposes represents the rest.
Keep in mind that the restricted use of water during drought is not water conservation. It is a temporary response to a temporary condition. Meaningful water conservation is to reduce water demand to increase the water supply and begins by changing the way we use water today both in cities and on the farm.
At the time of this writing, TCEQ reported more than 1,000 out of the more than 4,600 community water systems were operating with some form of restricted water use.
Changing our water habits permanently can provide more water for the future, conceivably delaying the restrictions many see today. Again, the time to act is before, not during, a drought.
In doing so, we may see a reprieve - though not necessarily a solution - to our future water needs. Therefore, the temptation to trade conserved water for less investment in future water supplies is neither prudent nor practical.
In the meantime, a water conservation strategy based on a call to reduce demand, increase supply and change the culture makes sense.
(Michalec is a director on the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District in Kendall County.)