What Does the Drought Mean for the Texas Miracle?
As much as anything, the economic boom in Texas depends on water. So what will industry do as the state gets drier? The Texas Tribune's Kate Galbraith explains.
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The drought has left Texas with empty reservoirs, parched livestock, and angry rice farmers. Kate Galbraith, the Texas Tribune‘s energy and environment reporter, has trekked across the state to report on every angle of the water issue and the number of words she has written on the topic is truly staggering. Earlier this month, she penned a series on Texas’s water woes and what is being done to address the issues for the Tribune, and for the July issue of TEXAS MONTHLY, Galbraith wrote a piece on how the state’s industry—from refineries to power plants—will continue to thrive in this increasingly dry landscape. She warns that if they can’t cope, “the Texas Miracle might disappear in a cloud of dust.”
Texas, Galbraith writes, has grown into “the nation’s economic juggernaut” over the last few decades:
But that success has bred its own challenges, in the form of a booming population and a booming economy that put tremendous demands on our water supplies. If the next one hundred years are going to be as successful as the past one hundred, Texas will have to figure out how to deal with a state that’s getting bigger, hotter, and drier all at once.
The TM Daily Post caught up with Kate to ask her a few questions about her reporting on this increasingly important subject:
In your TEXAS MONTHLY story you write that several other cities in Texas are considering following El Paso’s lead and building desalination plants, which is an expensive and energy-intensive way to get water. But, despite these drawbacks, is desalination one of the state’s best hopes for addressing its water problems?
Actually desalination has already taken off in a surprising number of places in Texas. The Texas Water Development Board says there are 44 public water systems, mostly small, that use the technology. All are for brackish groundwater, of course; we’re not yet at the stage of desalinating seawater on a grand scale here. San Antonio is building a big desal system, and Odessa is thinking about one. (You can read more about this here.) But as promising as desal is, it’s expensive—especially when dealing with seawater—and it’s definitely not the only solution. Environmentalists say conservation and reuse of water should come first.
What lessons can the rest of the state learn from El Paso cutting back on its water consumption at a time when the city’s population ballooned?
El Paso is an interesting case. It hasn’t had the luxury of waffling on conservation because it’s so dry there–ten inches of rain a year. So, yes, they have permanent water restrictions and a significant water reuse program that the rest of the state can definitely learn from, as well as the desal plant. To my mind the story of El Paso is one of hope-–we can beat the water problem if we set our minds to it, and if we’re ready to spend some money. Though interestingly enough-–and I don’t think I mentioned this in the piece-–El Paso has extremely low water rates for a big Texas city. I’m still trying to work out exactly why that is, but the restrictions have got to be a key part of it, because the less water you use on a regular basis, the less money you’ve got to pour into new infrastructure projects. And if you look around the city, it’s a lot of xeriscaped yards, except for some of the rich areas. Other parts of Texas can do that too.
According to your story, the average temperature in Texas jumped 5.2 degrees last year. Is this the largest jump on record?
Well last summer smashed the prior Texas record, being more than five degrees above normal. The scary thing is, they’re saying that this spring (March to May) was the hottest spring on record (see here). That means it’s been hotter so far this year in Texas than it was at the same time last year. Yikes! Let’s hope no more records are broken this year.
Right, this year is already warmer than last. Does the state climatologist offer any predictions for how much hotter the next decade will be?
Day to day weather predictions are tough enough, and making predictions a decade out are even harder. But basically, Texas is slowly getting warmer because of greenhouse gases, and things seem likely to continue to go that way, barring a huge volcano (which can have a cooling effect) or something like that.
What will it take before the legislature responds adequately to the state’s water problems? Could industry involvement be the thing that finally pushes them to act?
The question everyone’s asking is, will the fact that it has rained a lot over the spring derail the focus on water, legislative and otherwise. There are definitely some things the Legislature can do – set the tone on conservation, get going on funding the tens of billions of dollars of needs outlined in the state water plan, and so on. And I suspect industry is going to be a powerful voice in the conversation going forward.
I also want to mention briefly agriculture. That wasn’t a focus of this piece, but it is the biggest water user in Texas—sixty percent of the state’s water goes toward irrigation. Now that’s declining and the amount going to cities and industry is growing, but water use and regulation in ag is always going to be a big part of the policy discussion.
This month saw the opening of the Motiva Plant expansion in Port Arthur and Exxon announcement that it hopes to expand its refinery and plastics plants in Pasadena. Being on the coast, are these plants as concerned about water as more inland plants would be?
Great question. Whenever I see a new chemical plant announcement—and they’re coming thick and fast these days—the first thing I wonder about is where they’re going to get their water. Nobody’s really desalinating seawater, so my understanding would be that even plants on the coast get their water from the same sources that inland ones do—reservoirs, rivers, and groundwater. The particulars are going to vary plant by plant, but groundwater is going to be crucial going forward, because pretty much all the rights to surface water in this state are already allocated.
What surprised you about writing this piece?
I was pleased that I got as much input from industry as I did. I’d written a Texas Tribune piece on manufacturers’ drought issues after tracking down some leads, but I was able to go considerably more into depth here. NRG Energy, the power company, invited me out to two of their plants, and that was a great learning experience. Clearly industry is very concerned about the issue, and that’s why they wanted to tell their story. I’d be interested in hearing from more manufacturers. I get the sense that many, many industrial companies got nervous about water last year.
What can power companies do to combat the water challenges?
There’s a lot of talk about the “water-energy nexus”—that you need a lot of energy to pump water, and a lot of water to run power plants. The water issue was a big roadblock for the proposed coal plant near Bay City called White Stallion, because the LCRA decided last year not to sell it water. (Last I heard it’s planning to use groundwater.) But basically, power plants can get a lot more water-efficient. There are various technologies like “dry cooling,” and I was impressed with Newman, an El Paso power plant that uses treated wastewater and keeps recirculating it. And there’s huge attention to conservation-–the Dow Chemical, for one, was emphatic on this point. Ultimately, water, or lack thereof, is also a definite advantage for certain kinds of renewable energy. Wind turbines don’t need water; nor do rooftop solar panels. We don’t have a lot of solar because it’s still expensive, but I know NRG is bullish on solar in Texas, once the prices come down a bit more.
In your opinion, do water shortages pose the single biggest threat to the “Texas miracle”?
In my world of energy and environment, absolutely. It’s right there in the state water plan–-it says in the very beginning that Texas “does not and will not have enough water” during a serious drought. But no doubt people who follow other issues, like education, would make their case.