The Monitor's View

Texas toasts but will it conserve?

The Lone Start State is breaking heat and drought records this summer, with no end in sight. But it's record on conserving water is so-so at best.

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How hot is Texas? Really hot. Hot enough to bake chocolate-chip cookies on your Chevy’s dashboard.

Dallas is expected to hit 106 degrees today, a record. The city’s 10-day forecast reads like this: 106, 106, 105, 103, 103, 104, 103, 103, 103, 104. “Big D” has had 39 straight days of temperatures over 100 degrees. The state’s largest city will burn past its all-time record for 100-plus degree days in a row (42) this Friday.

But it’s not just the heat, it’s the dry that’s producing the biggest worries. Texas is now in the midst of its worst-ever one-year drought, according to John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. One-hundred-degree-plus temperatures will be “the norm” in Texas within a few decades, and 115-degree days “won’t be surprising,” he says.

Recommended: As much of US swelters, here are 5 worst heat waves of past 30 years

Right now much of the Lone Star landscape has gone all crispy and brown. Nearly three-quarters of the state is experiencing severe drought.

Reservoirs are shrinking dramatically. Lake Nacogdoches in east Texas recently dropped so low it exposed debris left by the crash of space shuttle Columbia in 2003. Agricultural losses to crops like corn, wheat, hay, cotton, and sorghum are estimated to be in the $7 billion to $8 billion range.

What's more, the state’s large oil industry is making more and more use of fracking, a water-intensive hydraulic-fracturing technique, putting it in growing competition with agriculture to use the available water.

Meanwhile, the state’s population grew by 4.2 million in the last decade, the biggest gain of any state.

All this might make you suppose that Texas, given that it has money to spend and a big need for water, might be a leader in developing innovative new approaches to water conservation.

The answer: Not so much.

The state can point to some individual bright spots, though they don’t add up to nearly enough. They include Dallas’s “New Throne for Your Home” program that subsidizes the purchase of water-saving toilets.

Since the 1980s, San Antonio has reduced its per capita water use from 225 gallons per person per day to 122. (Dallas is still at 240 gallons.) Even though San Antonio’s water department serves 67 percent more customers today, water usage hasn’t grown at all.

The traditional Texas solution to a water shortage has been to find more, mainly by damming up the state’s rivers. While many parts of the United States are tearing down their dams, for both ecological and economic reasons, Texas wants to keep building them. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the state has 7,173 dams higher than six feet. California, the most populous state, has 1,468. Alaska, the biggest state in area, has 96.

Dams not only can be costly public works projects to build, they come with other less-obvious costs. People and homes may have to be relocated; productive (and revenue-producing) land is lost under water, and wildlife habitats are destroyed.

No doubt Texans will learn how to cope. New watering techniques and drought-resistant plants can help its agriculture weather a changing climate. Xeriscaping (low-water-use landscaping) can beautifully replace some of the lawns kept green only with prodigious use of precious municipal water supplies, just as it has in other arid climates. (Irrigation for landscaping accounts for about half of total water usage during summer months in Texas.)

Big Spring, Texas, is taking things to the next level. It’s building a $13 million waste-treatment plant that will convert 2 million gallons of cleaned sewage back into clean, drinkable water, a step beyond the use of recycled “gray water” on lawns, golf courses, and decorative fountains. (The “yuck” factor will have to be overcome. Maybe the fact that astronauts in space have been using such systems for years will help.)

Texans have an innovative spirit. They have an opportunity to turn a problem into an opportunity by showing the rest of the US – and the world – how to prosper in a hotter, drier climate.

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