Brief: Water Conservation
March 16, 2019
Catholic teaching on the physical world begins with an understanding that it is God’s creation and given to us as a gift. Each creature reflects a portion of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness, and our first parents became nature’s stewards when God gave them dominion over nature.
Because Texas water law is a technically complex policy topic which doesn’t include direct church ministry, we elsewhere offer legislators and their staff five principles of action, rooted in Catholic Social Teaching, which we hope helps guide legislative proposals:
- protection of the environment should be consistent with the protection of human life,
- all people, especially the poor, should have ready access to safe and clean drinking water,
- we should protect water for future generations’ drinking and agricultural needs,
- state law should help local water boards and districts achieve the common good, and
- state law should prevent individuals from using water solely for their own benefit.
This paper will illustrate how these principles lead us to support water use efficiency and conservation.
Texas law and policy:
Water is essential to life and the Texas way of life; it has no substitute. Without it, our bodies, crops, livestock, communities, and Texas wildlife will not endure.
Ensuring that water is available for our children is critical and the urgency of this work is underscored by this: Texas’ population is the second largest in the U.S., has increased more than any other state since 2000, and is expected to increase from 29.5 to 51 million (70 percent) between 2020 and 2070. Not one of the people who moves to Texas brings water with them. Yet in every decade for the past century, at least one severe drought has struck Texas. As a result, we will need an additional 2.9 trillion gallons of water by 2070.
Texas law on conservation begins with a constitutional provision which establishes that the conservation, preservation, and development of water is a public right and duty. Conservation is defined in law as making water available for future uses by reducing water consumption, loss, and waste, as well as increasing efficiency, recycling, and reuse.
The State Water Plan (SWP), which estimates our future water needs and costs, considers water that is conserved to be a new supply of water. Conservation is expected to provide about 30 percent new water supplies, yet it requires only 6 percent of the SWP’s total cost. The focus upon conservation is positive, but Texas must succeed in reaching our conservation goals or our children and grandchildren will face significant water shortfalls.
Agriculture and municipalities are the two leading users of water and have different opportunities to conserve water.
Agriculture currently uses just over 2.93 trillion gallons of water annually, making it the leading user of water in Texas. Advancements in irrigation efficiency, crop genetics, and pest management have allowed Texas farmers to double crop yields using no more water than was used in the 1970s.
Despite progress, it is difficult to know the total impact of conservation and efficiency efforts because agricultural water withdrawals are largely unmetered. The lack of reliable data may be addressed by installing flow meters and monitoring wells.
One challenge flows from the depletion of aquifers: over 75 percent of water used for irrigation comes from groundwater, which is expected to decline by nearly one-fourth by 2070. A central focus in this crisis is the Panhandle, where the Ogallala Aquifer is the primary water source. The Ogallala provides half of water used for irrigation and livestock in Texas, but will decline by 43 percent by 2070. Because the Panhandle has no alternative source of water, it faces the state’s largest projected shortages in the future.
In 2016, each Texan used an average of 141 gallons of water each day. State laws on municipal use range from requiring efficient plumbing fixtures to requiring certain local entities to file conservation plans, progress reports, and water loss audits.
Texas was one of the first states in the nation to require water loss audits, which quantify the amount of water that is produced but never received by an end user. The average reporting Texas county lost just over 21 gallons per person per day in 2017, with an average value of $728,000. Figure 1 illustrates the severity of loss in reporting counties.
Finally, cities may conserve water by establishing rate incentives or landscape watering ordinances. Remarkably, one-third of water used by Texas households is for landscapes. Reducing water use for grass is a readily-available conservation method that helps secure water use for drinking and agriculture in the future.
 Texas Comptroller, Liquid Assets: The State of Texas’ Water Resources, Feb. 4, 2009. 1.
 Ibid., 31.
 TWDB, Water for Texas, 2017 State Water Plan (SWP). 7. Calculation is based on the need for an additional 8.9 million acre-feet of water.
 Essentials 23:3.
 Ibid., 71 Figure 6.10. For more information, visit OgallalaWater.org.
 Essentials 23:9-10, 16.
 Essentials 23:16. Loss can occur for several reasons, but a key focus is conveyance system leaks.
 Essentials 23:11-15.