Since moving to San Francisco, I stopped keeping track of the seasons. And every year, I don’t realize it is summer until I start receiving pictures from my friends back in Texas showing me the 100+ degree temperatures, as measured on their car dashboard.
Going hand in hand with the unbearable heat are the severe droughts that Texas has consistently experienced. With no water to keep temperatures lower comes the problem of no water for people – period. Last week, nearly 15 heat records were broken in Texas, and last year’s drought has been recorded as one of the worst ever.
Texas has long suffered from extreme droughts. With no real indication of this being a “phase,” the state is ever more concerned with water scarcity, and is taking action.
The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is a funding agency focused on the long term planning for development of water resources in the state. The way I see it, TWDB has been addressing water scarcity concerns in two of the most useful ways. The first is the promotion of water reuse, which happens to be the largest focus area for the agency. In fact, the agency recommends that water reuse make up 12-16% of the additional water supplies that need to be developed over the next 50 years.
Many eyes are currently on West Texas, which last year decided to break ground on a wastewater treatment facility that had been talked about for at least several years. The new plant located in Big Spring, TX will be one of the first in the nation to process wastewater for direct input into a drinking water system.* The project is currently in construction and is scheduled to go into operation by the end of the year (ahead of schedule). While other Texas cities might prefer a “wait and see” approach before considering similar plants of their own, I think the reality is that droughts are already here and there is minimal (if any) time to spare. The TWDB is reportedly already considering a $2,000,000 direct potable reuse project for the City of Brownwood, and I’m positive it will see many more reuse project proposals as the drought accelerates and cities realize the need for greater diversity of water resources. In a conversation I had with Jorge Arroyo, Director of TWDB’s Innovative Water Technologies Division, he stated “water reuse is going to increase – no doubt.” The division has a primary goal of advancing water reuse, desalination, rainwater harvesting, and aquifer storage and recovery water management strategies.
The second way in which water scarcity concerns are being handled is through desalination. Desalination projects are receiving lots of attention, and I’ll bet it’s in no small way due to the nearly 10 straight years the TWDB has received appropriations from the state legislature to advance the concept. Assistance is in the form of grants for demos and research around concentrate management, energy optimization, and unique characterization of brackish water. According to the Innovative Water Technologies website, “TWDB has funded 12 brackish groundwater desalination demonstration projects for a total of about $2.6 million, and two seawater desalination pilot plant studies of approximately $3.13 million.” The state also opted to conduct pilot studies at various aquifers to map and characterize brackish groundwater to facilitate the planning of desalination projects (e.g., see results from the study conducted at the Pecos Valley Aquifer in West Texas). I asked Jorge Arroyo about the use of brackish water for industrial purposes – particularly within the oil & gas sector – and he noted that the state was indeed interested in partnering with companies given the common set of interests. It makes sense, as oil and gas companies logically would obtain and have access to a plethora of information on aquifers (e.g., location, size, quality, etc.) through their drilling operations.
Separately, I’ve also read about Texas being in the process of introducing and rolling out smart water meters – another potential solution to curb anxiety around water scarcity. Most importantly, smart water meters allow utilities to identify potential water leaks, but they also mitigate instances of inaccurate water metering, improperly sized and typed water meters, billing system errors, and theft of service. By the end of 2010, TWDB estimated that over 3.5 million smart water meters had been installed. Utility officials cited minimal consumer resistance to the new smart water meters – a welcome reaction given the backlash reportedly encountered during the roll-out of smart meters to track electricity usage.
It’s comforting to know that Texas is taking action to protect its precious water resources. I admittedly was fairly ignorant about Texas’ water initiatives when I lived there (instead opting to spend my time complaining about those ‘dog days’ of summer), but now, as I wear layer after layer to protect myself from SF’s summer chill, I am glad to know exactly where water has its place – deep in the heart of Texas.
* Some may cringe at the thought of direct potable water reuse. The reaction, however, is unfounded and entirely psychological – treated water is treated water, and in fact, treated water from sewage plants is more often than not cleaner than the water we get from other drinking water sources that may contain sewage and runoff from upstream anyway (what if Joshua Seater was never caught peeing in the reservoir?!).
Arti Patel is an Associate on the Research & Advisory team at Cleantech Group.
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