After years of enduring one of the fiercest droughts on record, Texas officially became completely drought free in July.
Texas’ no drought status didn’t last long; on August 3rd a small portion of east Texas was classified as again being in moderate drought. But overall, it’s hard to deny that this spring’s heavy rains have provided much needed relief to farmers, ranchers, and the rest of us throughout the state.
If history is any guide, the return of the rains means that water will fade from the political consciousness, and people will go back to taking water for granted. But that would be a mistake. For if history is any guide, droughts will return. And as hard as it may be to believe, next time it could be even worse.
Texas is growing. Population is expected to grow by 20 million over the next 50 years. All of those folks are going to use water. Texas has also maintained a vibrant industrial base. That’s great for our economy, but it will require a lot of water to keep going.
To meet Texas’ long term water challenges, the state has developed a state water plan, that includes 50 year projections about Texas’ future water needs by region, and collects proposals for water projects that can meet those needs. The state has also set up a number of loan programs (most prominently the State Water Infrastructure Fund of Texas, or SWIFT) to help localities and others fund projects, which recently announced nearly $4 billion in projects it would fund over the next decade. Texas has also launched a PACE program, which makes it easier for industrial and commercial facilities to get financing for energy and water efficiency improvement projects.
While important, these measures alone are not enough. Many communities are reluctant to commit themselves to major expenditures based on projections of future growth and rainfall patterns that may or may not materialize. Even where developers are willing to undertake the risk, they can be stymied by local restrictions or threats of environmental lawsuits.
Conservation is a key part of the solution, but the way our water systems are currently funded often works against conservation. Having water utilities promote conservation is a little like having Coca-Cola try to get people to drink less Coke; there is an inherent conflict of interest involved. And to the extent that utilities use volume based water charges to cover fixed infrastructure costs, people who do use less water can paradoxically see their bills go up.
Still, the best way to encourage conservation is to set the price of water at a level that fully accounts for its costs. Attempting to limit water use through mandates and restrictions will inevitably lead to unfairness. Industries with political clout will lobby for fewer restrictions, while the burden of shortages will be shifted to others. We can see that playing out now in California (which unlike Texas is still battling drought). In April, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order decreeing a 25 percent reduction in urban water use. Yet comparable reductions were not mandated for the state’s water intensive agriculture sector.
By contrast, increased water prices would encourage conservation across the board and would incentivize development of new water supply. No one wants to pay more for water. I certainly don’t. But if we don’t prepare for the next drought, we may find that our procrastination has proved even more costly.
Josiah Neeley is Texas state director of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. He lives in Austin, Texas.