FORT WORTH — This is the annual meeting of the Philosophical Society of Texas, a little-known group and justifiably so. Membership is made up of 200 of the state’s top scientists, academics, lawyers, authors and other assorted philosophers plus guests. (I am the official hemlock taster.) Each year they gather to discuss a major situation facing us, with outside experts to lead the sessions. So what earth-shaking topic needs the attention of our brightest thinkers? Immigration? Education? Ted Nugent’s mouthwash? Nope. It’s water, not real sexy, but water in Texas is of gathering importance. We don’t have enough, desalination costs too much and the San Antonio River uses yesterday’s baths.
Here are some disjointed notes I made, along with info stolen from the meeting’s papers: Our major problem with water is all the new people flooding — so to speak — into Texas from across the Rio and the 49 other states, and our birth rate. We can build more schools, roads and garbage dumps. We can add more Congressional seats and print more ballots, but we can’t add to our rainfall or make our rivers bigger. We have a finite amount of water. A noted heart surgeon asks, “If we can neither create nor destroy matter, including water, and since our bodies are 90 percent water, where’s it gone?” Good philosophical question.
Agriculture takes up half of our water, but the urban explosion has made things worse. That irrigated cotton field didn’t consume near as much water as the 1,000 new houses that sit there now. Fracking has brought newcomers to town (Cotulla, heart of the boom, used to have four hotels. It now has 21), but fracking uses lots and lots of water. And, of course, we are in the middle of an extreme drought — 2011 was the driest year on record. Lake Travis is down to 38 percent of capacity while rice farmers downstream on the Colorado from Travis are screaming for more wet stuff.
However, there is good news. Managing our water supply began with the early Franciscan missionaries who had extensive knowledge on the subject. Their work in the El Paso areas and around San Antonio are still evident and in some cases still used. Page after page of the Texas Constitution deals with water and water bonds. In the 1950s Texas endured a terrible drought which today is still the Drought of Record — our benchmark for dryness — although if we don’t get some rain soon the current drought may be the new yardstick. So, in 1957 the Legislature created the Water Development Board and more recently Texas voters approved $2 billion to deal with our water problems. To be fair to ourselves, we know there is a growing crisis and we are trying to get ahead of the new Dust Bowl.
We are second among the 48 continental states in inland water areas (Minnesota is first). We have 3,700 named lakes and rivers, and we keep building more (every single lake in Texas except Caddo is man-made). But our water is mal-distributed. El Paso is drier than Tucson and Orange is wetter than New Orleans. In 1968 there was a plan to run a big pipe from Texas across Louisiana to tap the Mississippi River. No one bothered to ask the Cajuns if we could build our own Keystone pipeline across their state, and the pipe dream was laughed into oblivion. However, that plan looks better each drought, so we might need to deal with Louisiana politicians. Anybody know how to say, “Just consider it a campaign contribution, governor.” in French?
San Antonio and El Paso have experienced huge population increases in recent years, but their water usage has stayed the same or even dropped. Conservation and education are the key, their water experts say. As mentioned, the river alongside the San Antonio Riverwalk uses recycled water. So do the town’s Toyota plant and golf courses. To the north, restaurants in the Metroplex could well put up signs in their restrooms: “Please flush — Houston needs the water.” According to a National Academy of Sciences study, during summers almost all of the Trinity River, which is Houston’s main water supply, is wastewater discharged from Dallas and Fort Worth.
Comparing per capita water usage among cities is impossible. Example: Dallas has 325,000 people coming in each workday. They use water, then depart. That skewers the figures. One water expert pulled out a bottle of Ozarka and pointed out that it cost 2,700 times what the same amount of water would cost coming from the Austin water works. Incidentally, Austin gets its water from dammed-up lakes built in the 1930s. Today Austin has 13 times its 1930s population, but the same lakes.
Do you know where that water which comes out of you faucet originates? Only 20 percent of Texans do, but almost every San Antonian knows that theirs comes from the Edwards Aquifer. TV stations and the newspaper run daily dip-sticks. We have surface water — rivers, lakes and reservoirs — and ground water, which should be called underground water. But pumping out the latter causes subsidence, and today one-third of the San Jacinto Battlefield is under water. These two sources of water have two different sets of laws, and both keep lawyers busy because owners, cities and the State of Texas are always suing one another for water rights. Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas could sue New Mexico about water near El Paso.
I see the philosophers are packing up their togas and ending another meeting. The society began in 1837 to discuss “the collection and diffusion of correct information.” Its original members included Sam Houston, Mirabeau B. Lamar (its president), Anson Jones, Ashbel Smith, Rusk, Wharton, several other Texas movers and shakers, and a founder of the City of Houston Augustus C. Allen. The minutes do not reveal whether Houston & Co. drank water, but probably not.
Ashby is wet at email@example.com