A Texas-Sized Drought

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – February 17, 2012 – Comment

“Old news is no news,” the saying goes, so with the massive drought devastating Texas now more than a year old, it’s been remarkably absent from the front pages. I was pleased, therefore, to see The New York Times turn the spotlight back on the continuing crisis with a recent article titled, “Texas Drought Forces a Town to Sip from a Truck.”   The article detailed the plight of the town of Spicewood Beach, outside of Austin, where the public water system is projected to run completely dry within 180 days (one of 13 public systems in the state facing the same timeline) and where nearby Lake Travis has virtually vanished, dropping 44 feet below its February average.

Benjamin Franklin said, “When the well is dry, we shall know the value of water.” You can bet that to residents of Spicewood Beach, each drop of water is precious right now.  That’s a mindset the nation as a whole really needs to adopt.  Global climate change will continue to impact U.S. water supply by creating fluctuating weather patterns.  What’s more, there are no short-term solutions that magically offer an expanded water supply. So, we have to take the opposite approach and think long-term.  Certainly, our predecessors did so.  They built reservoirs that we’re using 100 years later and in many cases, laid down pipe that we’re still using (at our peril) 100 years on.  A century from now, will our great-great-grandchildren be able to point with pride to anything that we created to protect or enhance the country’s water supply?

It’s time to make hard choices and to invest both dollars and “sense” in order to develop new sources of supply and to ensure that we don’t waste the water we do have.

A growing option for “new sources of supply” lies in water recycling and reuse. This involves treating wastewater to very high standards, thereby supplementing groundwater supplies and reservoirs that are used as sources for drinking water.  San Diego is piloting a treatment plant to supplement its drinking water supplies.  Orange County, CA already supplements its groundwater with reclaimed water.  Many other communities are considering a similar approach, particularly after the recent endorsement of the practice by the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition, there needs to be a serious approach to leak detection and control.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that right now a staggering 7 billion gallons per day of clean, treated drinking water are lost in the U.S, due to leaking pipes and mains.  In addition, there’s a great deal of waste due to leaks in industrial and agricultural settings. Even homeowners can play an integral role, for the EPA estimates that the amount of water leaking from U.S. homes exceeds one trillion gallons per year!  That’s enough water to supply Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico for more than a year.

It’s clear that it’s up to all of us to start treating water as the precious resource it is, and not let it go to waste.  In upcoming posts I’ll take a closer look at some of the issues the Texas drought raises for all of us, including climate change and its effect on the U.S. water supply, advances in leak detection technology, and the value of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (even by water utilities!).