Water in Texas: Top five issues we need to solve now

Communities across Texas are dealing with a wide range of challenges for managing and safeguarding their water resources. Texas water experts, Tyler Jones and Stephen Berckenhoff, propose solutions to address five of these critical water issues.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, much attention has been focused on how states across the U.S. manage water — our most precious natural resource. But even before Harvey, Texas had been grappling with the complex issues around how to best improve our water infrastructure. How do we use our water wisely? How do we plan for the future and protect our water supplies for the next generation? How do we deal with a deluge of water from major storms and hurricanes? These questions don’t have easy answers.

It’s even more urgent for Texas to address these issues now because this state has one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S. While this growth brings positive opportunities for local communities and the economy, it also creates challenges when it comes to managing critical infrastructure, such as water. More people means we need more water to sustain the quality of life the Lone Star State is known for in cities and rural communities.

To prepare Texas for what’s next, we recommend strategies that combine science and technology with innovative water management approaches so people across the state have access to safe, clean water for years to come. Here are the five main issues we need to solve to build a better water future.


1. How do we make sure we have water today and into the future?

When considering the amount of growth Texas is expected to experience over the coming years, the state’s current water supply isn’t enough to meet future demands. According to the Texas Water Development Board’s 2017 State Water Plan, nearly nine million acre-feet — a unit of volume to measure one acre of surface water to a depth of one foot — of additional water supplies will be needed to meet the state’s demand for water by 2070.

What water management strategies should we be applying today to prepare for this future? Depending on where you’re located, the solutions vary. But there are two techniques, in particular, that are worth investing more of our time and resources:

  • Brackish water desalination. Texas has many brackish water aquifers across parts of the state. Brackish water is not as salty as the sea, but it’s still too salty to drink. Desalination takes existing brackish water and treats it, so it’s safe drink and be used again. This under-tapped, abundant source can create an additional water supply.
  • Aquifer storage and recovery. When extra water is available, we can’t let it go to waste. Aquifer storage and recovery takes water that’s currently not needed and stores it in aquifers — underground layers of rock that are saturated with water — where it can be pumped to the surface and recovered when water is scarce. This approach can save costs as it uses nature to store the water, instead of building additional above-ground storage.


2. How do we plan ahead for when there’s too much water?

We’ve all heard the expression “it’s either feast or famine.” Too much water is as bad as not enough, and negative impacts from extreme rainfalls and hurricanes cause risks to our water infrastructure, coastal areas and even our economy. How do we protect ourselves from excessive wet weather events like Hurricane Harvey? By planning ahead

  • Upgrade conveyance systems  now. Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain on the greater Houston area in a matter of days. When it rains heavily like this over a short period of time, the risk of overloading our storm and sanitary sewers and wastewater treatment plants becomes a major health and environmental concern. Once a sanitary sewer or wastewater treatment plant reaches its capacity, the excess water overflows, becoming a sanitary sewer overflow (SSO). When all of these systems have maxed out their capacities, contaminants in the storm water and untreated human waste from the SSOs produce hazardous pollution that are released back into our lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. So it’s vital that our sewers and wastewater treatment facilities are upgraded or retrofitted before damaging storms occur.
  • Flood control planning. This is another essential step in safeguarding our communities from heavy rains. Flood control planning allows us to divert excess water from swelling rivers and reservoirs to land that is able to absorb it during times of flooding. It also reduces the impact of future droughts by using the ground as a natural place to store the water.

Construction of new levees, lakes, dams or retention ponds are also solutions to control flooding. They provide temporary places for excess water to flow and be set aside until it’s ready to be released back into our water supply for other uses. Designing and constructing this water infrastructure takes time and funding, so planning ahead in a responsible manner is the best way we can protect ourselves for the times when we have too much water.


3. How do we restore our water operations after unexpected disasters?

When a disaster strikes, we’re all affected. Disasters put our water infrastructure at risk — from a damaging weather event like a hurricane, to a terrorist attack that could contaminate our drinking water supplies.

  • Disaster recovery isn’t just about getting our critical water operations back up and running to their previous state after a disaster occurs, but it’s also requires thinking how we can build back better, become more resilient and prevent system failures from happening in the future.
  • Storm surges. We can’t ignore the fact that climate change is contributing to many of the extreme weather events we are now experiencing around the world. Studies prove that the increased temperatures in our atmosphere hold more water, resulting in stronger storms and excessive rain, as well as higher sea levels, which contribute to more intense storm surges during hurricanes.

These storm surges, such as the ones created during Hurricane Harvey, push water from the sea to the shore with forceful winds. If the storm surge is strong enough, flooding will happen, especially in low lying areas along our coasts. And with climate change also impacting sea levels, flooding, storm surges and eroding coastlines are even more of an immediate concern.


4. How do we get water where we need it the most?

With the unique geography across Texas, some parts of the state enjoy ample water supplies — you could say they are “water rich,” while others are faced with record drought — they’re “water poor.” How do we get the water to the areas that need it most? This complex question typically involves expensive infrastructure upgrades. So how could we “move” water in the most cost effective way?

  • Transmission pipelines. Through the use of integrated long distance transmission pipelines, you can convey and reallocate water by moving it from one part of the state to another. This provides resource sharing opportunities, and in turn, cost savings, because more communities along the pipeline route can benefit from this new water source.
  • Upgrades to existing water treatment plants. Building new water infrastructure to support our growing communities’ water needs is the ideal solution, but obtaining funding for these projects is often a huge obstacle. An alternative — and less costly — solution is to upgrade existing water treatment plants. While there are potential challenges when combining new technology or processes due to outdated treatment methods and aging infrastructure, working with a consultant who has a deep technical understanding can make this a viable option.


5. How can we recycle our water after we use it?

After we take a shower, wash dishes or flush the toilet, where does all that water go? What if we could collect this water and find other ways to use it again? While we may not want to drink recycled water, there are several other ways to make the most of it for other uses.

  • Water reuse. This approach treats our water and wastewater and turns it into a usable resource, such as watering our crops, lawns, athletic fields and golf courses, or for industrial processes. Indirect reuse can be used to replenish wetlands with treated wastewater and reclaimed water discharged from nearby treatment plants.
  • Biosolids. The water we flush down the toilet can be turned into valuable energy. By creating biosolids from the nutrient-rich natural materials extracted during the wastewater treatment process, we can create what is commonly referred to as net-zero energy. During the anaerobic digestion process of biosolids at a wastewater treatment plant, the methane gas that is produced can be captured, then burned and converted into the energy needed to power the plant. It allows a wastewater treatment plant to operate exclusively on energy produced onsite from the water and wastes that get treated. Biosolids are also safe for fertilizing crops because they do not contain pathogens.


What’s the path forward?

These five water issues are not only concerns for Texas, but issues that will require resolution for communities across the U.S. For example, in California, getting water to drought stricken areas is an ongoing challenge. And in Florida, too much water from hurricanes and sudden rain events pose flooding threats and damage to water infrastructure. These two states, like Texas, are also dealing with explosive population growth. Other parts of the country have an urgent need to upgrade and replace aging water infrastructure, especially in cities like New York and Detroit.

Now is the time to work together to resolve our water infrastructure challenges. By building partnerships between federal government, state and municipal agencies, water purveyors and local communities — working in collaboration with the most forward-thinking professional water engineers, expertise and resources — we can protect our water supplies for the next generation.