Oil built Texas - but water will shape its futuregreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Wednesday, May 30, 2001
Oil built Texas - but water will shape its future
From The Economist magazine c.2001 Economist Newspaper Ltd. (Distributed by the New York Times Special Features)
AUSTIN — With five droughts in the past four years, water is running out fast. The Rio Grande, one of the state's main sources, has failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in about 50 years.
And demand is soaring, with the number of Texans expected to double by 2050. If this goes on, El Paso will run out of water in 20 years and other cities not much later.
Can the supply be increased? Texas has been squabbling with its neighbors about the division of the Rio Grande's water. There is talk of new reservoirs, but they may not be ready before El Paso and other cities have gone dry.
Since surface water is so scarce, many people want to pump more water from underground aquifers. This would help — 55 percent of the state's population already depends on such water for drinking and agriculture — but reliance on well water, if not handled carefully, could create vast environmental problems and leave the state with no water reserves.
So Texas is again wondering how to cut demand. Nobody can stop the state's population growing. But there are surely ways to limit the amount of water each Texan uses.
Americans consume more water per head than most people, yet the price (a third of a cent per gallon) is lower than in most other rich countries. Water takes up less than 0.8 percent of the average American household budget.
In theory, a price increase could achieve two things. It could raise money to help build better pipelines. It could also tame consumption, perhaps by as much as 20 percent in some areas.
Meanwhile, however, T. Boone Pickens, an erstwhile corporate raider, has been working on the supply side. He has been busy buying water rights in western Texas, setting up a consortium of landowners who have agreed to sell him their water at a given price.
Pickens hopes to pipe 150,000-200,000 acre-feet of water from the vast Ogallala aquifer in the Texas Panhandle to the state's parched cities. (An acre-foot, enough water to cover an acre a foot deep, is 326,000 gallons, or some 1.2 million liters.)
The cities would pay on a sliding scale, depending on the distance Pickens has to pump the stuff. Faraway El Paso would pay $1,400 per acre-foot, Dallas around $800.
Much of the projected revenue of $200 million would go into building pipelines to carry the stuff. But these are still stiff prices: the state of California recently paid $260 an acre-foot in a similar deal.
Environmentalists have reason to worry, too. The Ogallala replenishes itself at a rate of less than one acre-foot a year. In these circumstances water extraction is little different from mining. Indeed, Texas law treats water much as it does oil or gold: anybody who has access to the stuff can extract as much as he wants.
In theory, such water is protected by Texas's Groundwater Conservation Districts. But the state's strong tradition of property rights limits the GCDs' ability to control men like Pickens.
C.E. Williams, general manager of the Panhandle's Groundwater Conservation District No. 3, which deals with Pickens, thinks the current crisis justifies pumping up to 50 percent of the Ogallala. But Pickens's methods, he argues, would empty it within 25 years.
Williams is pinning his hopes on a bill that is currently being discussed in the state legislature. This would allow more GCDs to be established, and empower them to levy a fee of at least two-and-a-half cents per 1,000 gallons to study the effects of pumping and set up replenishment projects. The only trouble is, Pickens may have already got himself exempted from the fee.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), May 30, 2001