No natural resource has greater significance for the future of Texas than water. For fourteen years, twelve as executive director, I had the privilege of working at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. During that time, I was able to see more of the richness of Texas' cultural and natural history than most people see in a lifetime, and I came to have a profound respect for water's role as the limiting factor for all of life and the principal determinant of economic progress.
In Texas we have been very successful in managing our natural resources over the past century or so. David Schmidly's work, Texas Natural History: A Century of Change, has shown that in most cases the landscape of our state is in much better condition than it was before 1900. Barely fifty years after settlement began in earnest with the arrival of Anglo colonists and sodbusters, most of the native grasslands had been plowed under or overgrazed and the vast virgin woodlands of the Piney Woods deforested. Great quantities of soil had washed off the land, especially in the Hill Country and the Rolling Plains.
Today, thanks to the efforts of government agencies such as the Agricultural Extension Service and the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resource Conservation Service) and the good stewardship of private landowners, who own most of the real estate in Texas, the condition of the landscape has improved. Water quality has improved as well. The establishment of pollution control legislation has had a positive impact on many of our rivers and streams, which until the late 1960s were often contaminated with poorly treated or untreated industrial and municipal waste.
In addition, our fish and wildlife populations are in better condition than they were at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is hard to believe, but at one time whitetail deer were largely extinct in parts of the state; today in some areas their population has increased to the extent that they present a serious ecological problem. Thanks to sound wildlife management, each year we harvest more wild turkeys than existed in the entire state before World War II. We have stocked more than a billion fish in our waters and substantially eliminated or fundamentally limited commercial harvest of marine and freshwater species.
Texas is the number one hunting and the number three fishing state in the nation. It is among the best destinations for birdwatchers in the world. It possesses a system of state parks and wildlife management areas that is the envy of other states, and it is home to some of the nation's most important national parks and national wildlife refuges. Thus we have reason to feel good about the natural condition of our state. But we must be prepared to confront very serious challenges both on the land and in the water.
With respect to the landscape of Texas, the most important fact and insight is that the state is almost entirely in private ownership. Experts argue about the exact percentages, but it is indisputable that between 94 and 97 percent of the state is privately held. The implications for the environment, water resource management, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and open space are profound. In addition, Texas has become one of the most urbanized states in the country and, as a result, loses large tracts of rural and agricultural land to development each year. Often, as traditional landowners pass away, their heirs are left with as much tax burden as land. All these factors contribute to an inexorable process of land fragmentation, which is the single greatest terrestrial environmental problem we face.
As the size of tracts of land in Texas continues to diminish, wildlife habitat disappears and open space is lost, along with much of the outdoor recreation opportunities we enjoy. Perhaps most noteworthy for the future of the state, the function of our watersheds is irrevocably impaired. In fact, the issues associated with ensuring sufficient clean water for both economic growth and the environment is the most significant and urgent environmental concern facing Texas in the next generation.
Another significant insight is that most of the available water is in eastern Texas, while most of the current and expected economic growth is in the west where water is scarce. Over the years there has been much talk of moving large amounts of water from the eastern rivers westward to thirsty farms and cities, but regional competition, environmental objections, and substantial legal impediments have kept this from happening on a major scale.
Historically, we have depended largely on surface water for human uses, including agriculture, industry, municipal consumption, and recreation. Surface water occurs naturally in the rivers and is stored in 196 major reservoirs—one of the most extensive series of impoundments in the United States. According to the 2007 State Water Plan, a major reservoir is defined as one that has at least 5,000 acre-feet of storage capacity at its normal operating level.
By law the water in the rivers is considered the property of the people of Texas. Today most of this water has already been spoken for through the granting of rights to it by the state of Texas. In fact, some of our rivers are actually overappropriated; that is, if all the water permitted for use from them were withdrawn they would dry up. Anyone who doubts this assertion may simply recall photographs from the beginning of the twenty-first century showing that the Rio Grande no longer reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, about 85 percent of surface water has been permitted for agricultural use, rendering its availability for purposes such as urban development very difficult.
Compounding this problem is the fact that the state has not constructed a new reservoir in about fifteen years. The most recent is the O. H. Ivie Reservoir on the Concho River, dedicated in 1990. There just are not many sites left in Texas where reservoirs can be built, and those that exist often have important associated environmental resources, including much of the state's remaining bottomland hardwood forests and other significant wildlife habitat. The latest state water plan (water plans are issued every five years) envisions fourteen new major impoundments, and there are already concerns about many of these proposed projects. Finally, private landowners in Texas have been able to take advantage of the current state water planning process to discourage the taking of their property for reservoir construction. In sum, all these issues make the process of approval for reservoir construction a challenge that can take many years to complete.
Another important factor constraining the use of surface water is that the state has provided very little protection historically for what are called environmental flows, the amounts of water necessary to sustain aquatic life in the rivers and bays and the estuaries into which they empty. The Texas legislature did not officially recognize that protecting the aquatic environment was a beneficial use of water until l985, when fairly modest provisions were included in water rights permits for the first time to protect environmental flows. By that time, unfortunately, the vast majority of Texas' surface water had already been permitted for use. This is a problem for both developers of water resources and for environmental interests, who joined forces in 2007 to encourage the state legislature to lay the groundwork for protecting environmental flows. From an environmental standpoint, if we are not able to sustain the flow of freshwater into the bays and estuaries, their biological productivity will decline substantially. These areas provide not only the best coastal sport fishery in the country but also billions of dollars of annual economic benefit to the state through waterfowl hunting, birdwatching, and recreational and commercial fishing.
Largely as a result of these daunting challenges to the limited surface water supply, Texas is increasingly looking to groundwater as its principal source of water. Groundwater use in Texas is not a new concept. San Antonio, for example, has historically been 100 percent dependent on groundwater from the Edwards Aquifer for both industrial and municipal use. A primary reason for this is that for nearly one hundred years Texas did not regulate groundwater use.
A Texas Supreme Court decision in the early twentieth century declared that groundwater was too "mysterious and occult" to understand and thus to regulate. Since then the rule for groundwater use in Texas has been the right of capture, which means that anyone who owns land above a subterranean water reservoir can pump an unlimited amount of water for any purpose. This total lack of regulation of groundwater is in stark contrast to the heavy regulation of surface water and is the primary reason that entrepreneurs in various parts of the state, including the Panhandle, the Trans-Pecos, and Central Texas, are feverishly attempting to secure and market very large volumes of water from aquifers.
A complicating factor is that Texas' nine major and twenty-one minor subsurface aquifers are very different geologically. Some aquifers recharge themselves fairly regularly; others were charged as long ago as the Ice Age and are not sustainable. In recent years the Texas legislature has enabled the establishment of local groundwater management districts to begin bringing some semblance of order to groundwater use in the state. However, many of these districts are organized on county lines rather than on the natural boundaries of the aquifers, are very poorly funded, and lack either the fundamental science or expertise to do their jobs.
Most scientists concur that there are substantial groundwater reserves available that directly affect, and even sustain, our surface waters. But without laws and policies linking ground- and surface water, sustainable management of these resources will be ineffective.
Traditionally, it has taken a bad scare to get politicians in Texas to address the state's water problems. Much of the existing water infrastructure and the planning process on which the future of the state depends are the result of the drought of the 1950s, the so-called drought of record. In the 1990s Texas experienced a drought that in many respects was as serious as the previous crisis. But by the end of the twentieth century most Texans had migrated to urban areas where the effects of such a drought were not so obviously experienced when everyone lived on farms or ranches or in small towns.
Nevertheless, the drought of the 1990s sparked a new spate of water-related laws that provide the context for addressing Texas' future water needs in the new century. Senate Bill 1, passed in 1997, is considered a landmark piece of legislation; its centerpiece is the creation of a bottom-up planning process that involves local interests and stakeholders through regional planning committees, replacing the old centralized planning system that came into being after the drought of record. Unfortunately, when these regional planning groups were established many of our river basins and watersheds were divided, making systemwide planning very difficult. In addition, some of the groups have considered environmental issues important while others have ignored them altogether, rendering their conclusions ineffective at best and destructive at worst.
As Texas has continue to urbanize, another disturbing trend in recent years is the increasing lack of consideration for issues of conconcern to rural areas and samll town. Dallas, for example, imposes unwanted reservoirs on East Texans, and San Antonio continues its reliance on the Edwards Aquifer, which threatens spring flows in San Marcos and New Braunfels.
The planning system put in place through Senate Bill 1 demonstrated that groundwater is going to have to be a much bigger part of the equation, and it was the basis for Senate Bill 2. This bill, enacted in 2001, enabled the creation of groundwater management districts throughout the state, thus amending the rule of capture for the first time in a century. Finally, in 2007, the Texas legislature took another bold step and established, for the first time, a process for protection of environmental flows in the state's rivers and streams with Senate Bill 3.
Thanks to the widespread public participation mandated by the new laws, to the growth in population, and to the obvious fact that some of our most important sources of water are increasingly limited, water remains in the forefront of public policy in Texas. Unfortunately, we still seem to require a looming catastrophe to spur action.
One of the most promising ways to extend our supplies of water is through increased efficiency and conservation in both agricultural and municipal use. The city of San Antonio has made major strides in reducing its consumption of water, while consumption in other Texas communities has continued to grow. Certain agricultural sectors, in particular in the High Plains, have dramatically improved the efficiency of irrigation practices, while the production of other farm commodities, including citrus, is way behind. Many cities and water authorities are looking closely at reuse of treated wastewater, which, while intuitively logical, could cause problems for communities and interests downstream that depend on return flows.
Finally, looming over all of this is the fact that all modern water planning in Texas for the past fifty years has been based on the notion that the drought of the 1950s is as bad as it is going to get. Today, with the widespread consensus that the climate is changing as a result of both natural and human-caused phenomena, such thinking is not acceptable. Examination of fossil records and ice cores from the poles demonstrates that climatic extremes far greater than previously envisioned by scientists and planners may well be experienced by humanity in the coming decades.
Climate change is essential to discussions of future water resource planning in the state—in spite of the fact that recent state water planning has minimized or ignored it. At the end of the day, knowing the uncertainties of global climate change will help us prepare more thoughtfully for the future. The good news in Texas is that there are water resources available to meet Texans' needs if we plan wisely and that we have a process in place that is transparent and welcomes public participation. It is up to us to stay informed and get engaged. The future of our children depends on it.