Experts tout Texas as water-planning leader, but still stress potential shortages

Beneath the U.S. High Plains, a substantial underground reservoir stretches from the Texas Panhandle to South Dakota, providing drinking water for more than 2 million people and supplying the irrigation for dozens of valued crops across eight states, which account for at least one-fifth of the nation's total agricultural harvest.

But as population growth in the region slowly trends up — and the climate warms at a quicker-than-anticipated pace — uncertainty over the future of Texas' water infrastructure has culminated among both state leaders and residents as the Ogallala Aquifer diminishes and inches its way toward insufficient supply.

During "The Future of Rural Texas" symposium hosted earlier this month by the Texas Tribune on the Texas Tech campus in Lubbock, editor Adam Young of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and Amarillo Globe-News discussed the preservation of water with subject experts.

Among them, some of the most well-informed panelists: State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock; Carlos Rubinstein, former chair of the Texas Water Development Board; and Marilu Hastings of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. According to its website, the organization is a "mission‐driven grantmaking foundation that seeks innovative, sustainable solutions for human and environmental challenges."

Citing issues with population growth over impacts of the climate crisis, Perry, who chairs the Senate Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee, praised Texas leaders for their planning efforts: "Texas leads the country in having a (water) plan."

Texas Tribune hosts a preserving national resources panel with State Sen. Charles Perry, former chair of the Texas Water Development Board  Carlos Rubinstein, executive vice president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation Marilu Hastings, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, at McKenzie-Merket Alumni Center.
Texas Tribune hosts a preserving national resources panel with State Sen. Charles Perry, former chair of the Texas Water Development Board Carlos Rubinstein, executive vice president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation Marilu Hastings, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, at McKenzie-Merket Alumni Center.

Hastings, who serves as executive vice president of the environmental organization, echoed Perry's comment, giving accolades to the state's water-planning organization — the Texas Water Development Board, which after a years-long drought of record imperiled the state in the 1950s, has quinquennially created plans for the state's water infrastructure.

A culmination of strategic planning from hundreds of stakeholders across 16 regional groups, the "Water for Texas" plan outlines the needs and solutions for state water infrastructure into the next 50 years.

Although both Perry and Hastings praise Texas leadership for developing prevention strategies, they also recognize that the state's water shortage is likely to continue well into the future even if the state were to follow the most stringent of plans in quick fashion.

Perry noted even if the state completed every action in its current plan — which recommends more than 5,800 water management strategies — Texas would still face a water shortage of approximately 7.8 million acre-feet within half a century. Even by 2030, Texas could see potential shortages of 4.7 million acre-feet, data from the Texas Water Development Board shows.

"It's not as much a specific climate change consideration," Perry said. "It's 'How do we find new water supply?' (and whether) there are truly viable options to providing that supply."

No straightforward solution currently exists, but in the mix of discussions: Increased reservoir construction, rainwater catchment, direct potable reuse, and desalination.

Often topics of controversy in the industry, direct potable reuse is, essentially, wastewater that's undergone advanced treatment, while desalination would require a costly extraction of salt from groundwater, seawater and surface water.

Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer

For centuries, the Ogallala Aquifer stood still and full.

It was only within the last several decades — upon the conclusion of World War II — that large-scale water extraction of the aquifer began, according to Scientific American, a popular science magazine.

Now, after less than 80-years' use, experts predict that the portion of the aquifer from Texas to Kansas will deplete itself in less than 20 years, requiring 6,000 years of consistent rainfall to replenish — an unlikely scenario as experts anticipate more impactful droughts across the Southwestern U.S.

"Texas has a long history of drought, and there is no indication of that pattern changing," acknowledges the state water plan. "In fact, recent droughts remind us that more severe drought conditions are likely to continue to occur at some point in the future."

Earlier this year, the South Plains and Texas Panhandle went several months without receiving significant rainfall. Consequently, the region has experienced one of its poorest harvests this year and is now at risk of an economic loss into the billions.

Farmer Bryan Baker of Sudan — who has farmed since 1996 — previously said that he expects things to only worsen in coming years. Between both irrigated land and dryland, he planted about 3,000 acres of cotton but only about 300 survived through harvest.

Now, as the region becomes more likely to face extreme droughts and more long-lasting heatwaves, Baker said most farmers are having to reassess — especially those who use irrigation as the Ogallala Aquifer and local wells are taxed amid the relentless temperatures.

"We're getting closer to a time where I think we'll have to get rid of irrigation and switch to all dryland just so we can have some water to drink," he said.

Since 2019, concern for the diminishing Ogallala has been on the radar for the Avalanche-Journal and Globe-News, which published a column then about the aquifer's uncertain future.

"Today, as indicated, natural recharge is insufficient to make up for its withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer," wrote the columnist Paul Carlson, who serves as emeritus professor of history at Texas Tech University.

In some cases, a few areas in the aquifer may receive some recharge, but the average is less than one inch per year.

"In both the past and the present aquifer water has proved enormously beneficial for those people who live on the Caprock," Carlson wrote. "Clearly, however, continued long-term use of the Ogallala Aquifer appears troublesome and in need of major reevaluation."

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Experts say Texas water-planning leader but stress potential shortages