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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Texas deploying new tools to manage its water

The Nature Conservancy recently launched its Texas Water Explorer.  In this piece, we talk with Laura Huffman, State Director for TNC in Texas to find out more about what will be an important new tool at a time of growing water risk, locally and globally.

Why is a new water management tool needed in Texas?

Ms. Huffman: It’s no secret that we have some Texas-sized water challenges to tackle in the Lone Star State. As our state’s population doubles within the next few decades, we are entering an era where our water supplies for Texas communities, industry, agriculture and nature are constantly under threat.

Here’s why:

  • We have more than 27 million people living in Texas, and another 25 million or more projected to move here over the next 50 years.
  • Issues like rapid development and prolonged cycles of drought are stressing already taxed river and aquifer systems.
  • Texas’ four major metro areas added more people (400,000 in total) last year than any other state in the country according to new U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.Between 2011 and 2014,
  • Texas experienced one of its worst droughts in 500 years. That’s when water quickly rose to become the state’s number one natural resource challenge.
  • So our population is exploding just as our droughts are getting longer and more severe due to climate change. It could be a recipe for disaster – unless we think ahead and make some important changes today. There’s a small window of opportunity to get the issue of water right for Texas.
  • Luckily, Texas has a solid foundation for water management, perhaps more so than many of our neighboring western states: we have a fully-funded statewide water plan, standards for environmental flows, and water planning and management groups at regional and statewide levels. The Texas Water Explorer will help better marry these management efforts and ensure we are making decisions that look holistically at this stressed resource from a local, regional and statewide basis.

How did TNC find itself at the center of this development?

Ms. Huffman: The Nature Conservancy’s mission, to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends, puts us at the center of this development. We’ve long worked with Texas communities to find practical solutions for many of their toughest water challenges.

Our conservation work touches more than a dozen river basins. We’ve helped Central Texas invest nearly a billion dollars in water protection funds to safeguard water in the Edwards Aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for more than two million people in San Antonio and neighboring communities.

We’ve also informed legislative efforts to fund the Texas Water Plan, which includes an impressive 20 percent carve out for water conservation and efficiency projects.

Our non-partisan, inclusive and science-based approach has enabled us to become a trusted partner on this topic, both regionally and globally. Centralizing a ton of data and making it available to everyone falls in line with the collaborative and convening role we’ve served in Texas for decades.

Who is funding it?

Ms. Huffman: The primary funding sources were private donations to The Nature Conservancy from The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, Lennox Foundation and The Meadows Foundation.

Is this a solution which is scalable for other locations?
Ms. Huffman:  Absolutely. Globally, one in four cities is currently water stressed. Issues like water scarcity, drought, competing water needs and an exploding population affect all of us—that means it is in our shared interest to make smart decisions that optimize water in more efficient and sustainable ways.

The Conservancy’s global water experts provided critical expertise to ensure the tool was replicable beyond our state. For instance, many of the data sets used are available in other geographies. The peer review and stakeholder involvement process could be adapted to other states and countries as well.

Is it being built elsewhere?
Ms. Huffman: Not yet but we are in the process of evaluating other geographies.

How does this initiative dovetail with other initiatives to manage water risk, like at WWF

Ms. Huffman: Protecting freshwater for the needs of people and nature is one of our top priorities at The Nature Conservancy. We work with hundreds of partners across the globe on this important effort. The beauty of this tool is that it’s available to everyone who wants to use it. If this tool is scaled for a more global audience, we’d welcome groups like WWF, which is a partner of ours, to use it.

How can this type of tool help investors?

Ms. Huffman: We designed the Explorer to serve both highly technical and general audiences. By catering to both, we hope the tool can be of use to many different types of organizations, agencies and businesses.  This tool can help align conservation strategies, which will be useful for those looking to invest in strategies that forward sustainable water use in Texas.

How can this type of tool help regulators?
Ms. Huffman: We worked closely with federal, state, and local regulators during the development process and they are some of our most excited users. The tool can aid in their decision-making processes, whether that’s developing groundwater pumping permitting limits, identifying where water is over-allocated, or determining how to address water quality and ecosystem health issues.

Any closing thoughts?
Ms. Huffman: The old adage, “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over,” definitely rings true in Texas. But, we can’t continue to debate the issue of water as if we’re standing in a circular firing squad with big water users pitted against each other. Everyone–-farmers and ranchers, cities, business and conservationists—needs to work together because we are all connected.

We developed the Texas Water Explorer to create a shared understanding and appreciation for the many important factors that affect Texas water. I think this will ultimately lead to more collaborative and constructive strategies for stretching this critical resource as far as it can possibly go while still keeping environmental needs a priority.

Cooperation among unlikely partners can lead to some interesting innovations. I have a lot of hope that Texans can come together to advance key solutions on water that the rest of the world can learn from.

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