Water is an essential life resource. As global population increases and urban communities grow, the demand for water has become more urgent.
Unsustainable agricultural practices and poor irrigation techniques have led entire communities to perish around the world.
Geopolitical conflict bring water rights into the realm of fierce debate. Record-high temperatures grow each summer and a lack of adequate rainfall continually subjects San Antonio to stringent water restrictions. In the coming years, the 26 million (and growing) residents of Texas could see their homes become desperate for water.
In 2011, Texas was subjected to one of the worst droughts on record. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), water inflow levels were at the lowest in recorded history. Even with recent rain in early 2013, most communities in Texas remain in a drought.
Areas most severely affected and classified as “exceptional” reside along the Rio Grande and Valley regions of South Texas, according to the LCRA.
Responsible for providing water to more than one million residents below the Colorado River, the LCRA relies heavily on Lake Travis and Buchanan to serve as reservoirs. However, since 2008, the combined storage levels for both lakes have been consistently below the average.
In times of extreme water shortages, the LCRA petitions the state for emergency drought relief. During this process, the LCRA releases less Highland Lakes water to downstream farmers so that household use remains unrestricted.
While large agricultural companies are prepared for the water cutbacks, many small farmers are greatly affected by this decrease in a basic resource.
In 2013, the LCRA will petition to restrict water access to local communities. “It highlights the toll, the drought and the availability of water,” stated LCRA General Manager Becky Motal in a press release. “It is clear the board needed to take steps to protect our firm customers such as cities and industry, while still balancing the need of others who depend on the lakes.”
Earlier in the year, LCRA board members and rural Texas residents had hoped El Niño weather patterns would replenish already low reservoir levels – but they did not.
LCRA Chairman Timothy Timmerman expressed frustration over the lack of rain in 2013. “This drought that has plagued our region continues. Some of our inflows into the Highland Lake have been lower than we saw during the worst drought this region has even seen… This plan (emergency drought relief) isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we could come up with.”
Timmerman says, “We are keenly aware of that and always have that foremost in our minds as we decide how to best manage water under these conditions.”
While environmental conditions determine how much water is in supply, geopolitical factors determine who is then able to use reservoirs. On Jan. 8, 2013, the state of Texas filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that New Mexico is not fulfilling water delivery commitments established by the 1938 Rio Grande Compact.
The Rio Grande Compact is an interstate compact between the states of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado that equally apportions the water of the Rio Grande Basin. The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) claims that the state of New Mexico has wrongfully been pumping the Rio Grande River’s groundwater, leaving Texas with a shortage.
“It is unfortunate that we have had to resort to legal action, but negotiations with New Mexico have been unsuccessful, and Texas is not getting the water that it is allocated and legally entitled to,” stated TCEQ Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein.
With water for local Texas farmers already limited by the LCRA, any further water restrictions could have detrimental effects. Rio Grande Compact Commissioner Pat Gordon explains, “These illegal diversions of water in New Mexico are having an ongoing negative effect on the amount of water available for use by Texas farmers. Texas had no choice but to take action against the state of New Mexico.”
Texas v. New Mexico is one of many water disputes developing in regions where water supply is dwindling and population is increasing. Known as “water wars,” these disputes can lead to high levels of interstate tension.
In response to the suit filed by the state of Texas, New Mexico State Attorney General stated that Texas is “trying to rustle New Mexico’s water and using a lawsuit to extort an agreement that would only benefit Texas while destroying water resources for hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans.” Such strong rhetoric suggests that these “water wars” will not be resolved peacefully.
Director of the Global Water Policy Project Sandra Postel wrote in the National Geographic’s blog, Water Currents, that the conflict “is a wake-up call for all states and nations that share transboundary waters to… develop workable governing structures over water where they are lacking.” Postel also believes the conflict is “a lesson to invest now in water efficiency improvements so as to reduce pressure on both rivers and aquifers.”
Recently, Texas climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon warned that 2013 could rival the record drought of the 1950s. With federal data showing 90 percent of Texas at abnormally dry conditions, 22 percent in extreme to exceptional conditions and state reservoirs at their lowest levels since 1990, Nielsen-Gammon told lawmakers, “There is still a good chance that this could be the drought of record for parts of the state.”
In order to mitigate water shortages over the next 50 years, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) has predicted that $53 billion in infrastructure improvements will need to be made. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and San Antonio Rep. Lyle Larson have proposed using $1 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to finance as many as 26 new reservoirs, desalination plants and pipelines.
San Antonio relies primarily on the Edward’s Aquifer to meet its water needs. Currently, the aquifer capable of holding 670 cubic feet of water is averaging 647 cubic feet, leaving San Antonio in stage two water restrictions.
Stage two restrictions limit the availability to water landscape to one day a week from 7-11 a.m. or p.m. Residential car washing is also limited to one day per week and washing impervious covers is strictly prohibited. The most stringent water restrictions, stage four, come with a surcharge to residential water bills.
Urbanization and industrial agriculture has made water a scarce resource. The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) encourages San Antonio residents to adopt small changes to their daily lives to conserve water. This can be done by observing and changing wasteful habits, installing high-efficiency showerheads and replacing leaking water fixtures.
According to Timmerman, “It’s really all about lives and livelihoods.”

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