The rapidly growing Texas population will require more water — but the supply isn’t projected to keep up with demand.
In its 2022 State Water Plan (SWP), the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) projects the Texas water supply (PDF) to decrease by 18 percent by 2070 and water demand to increase by 9 percent (Exhibit 1). Approximately one-quarter of Texas’ population would face municipal water shortages without additional supplies by 2070.
|Year||Existing Water Supply||Projected Water Demand, 2020-2070|
Sources: Texas Water Development Board; Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
As a result, Texas leaders are actively working to address factors that affect the availability and variability of water supplies: population growth, water scarcity, climate-related impacts such as drought and extreme weather events, contaminants and aging water infrastructure. The significance of these issues has compelled the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts to analyze the state’s water supply in a new report, Texas Water: Present and Future Needs 2023 (PDF). As Comptroller Glenn Hegar says, “The future of water in Texas is the future of the Texas economy.”
This article offers a synopsis of the report and highlights some of the efforts to address water needs in Texas.
The TWDB is tasked with supporting 16 regional water planning groups to create the SWP to address water supply needs for current and future Texans. The SWP, released every five years, identifies potential water shortages under “drought of record” conditions and recommends water management strategies to address those potential shortages.
Existing water supply in Texas is the combined amount of surface water, groundwater and reuse water (wastewater that is treated and reused for other purposes) available for production and delivery in the occurrence of a drought. As of 2020, groundwater accounted for roughly 55 percent of the water used in Texas. Surface water accounted for 42 percent, and reuse water contributed less than 3 percent. The 2020 water supply was roughly 16.8 million acre-feet per year and is expected to decrease to roughly 13.8 million acre-feet per year by 2070.
Urgent concerns regarding statewide water supplies include aging water infrastructure and weather extremes. “There are several intertwined issues that are at play. The first is the demand on the system combined with the frequency of drought conditions in the state,” says Robert Greer, associate professor and director of the Graduate Certificate in Public Management at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
Greer continues, “We have more people demanding more water, and we have seen several significant drought events that have kept supply low. That scarcity puts pressure on the overall system, but of course that severity will vary by region.”
The age of water infrastructure varies across the United States: Some water utility systems are still equipped with pipes that were installed in the 1800s, but most systems date from the early to mid-20th century. There are more than 165,000 miles of pipes in the water distribution system in Texas. According to a 2022 survey from the Texas Rural Water Association, the average year of installation of small- to medium-sized water systems in the state was 1966.
“We are dealing with aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced or requires costly maintenance,” Greer says. “In Texas, we have a large number of small water providers that are responsible for maintaining their own infrastructure, and they do not always have the capacity to keep up. Many of the older systems lose water and break often.” Greer clarifies that capacity in this case means both fiscal resources to pay for the maintenance and replacement, and the workforce to keep the system functioning.
“One piece of evidence of the system breaking down has been the large number of boil water notices that we have seen over the last couple of years,” Greer says. In 2022, there were 3,143 boil water notices in Texas compared with 1,993 notices in 2018, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
In 2021, an estimated 130 billion gallons of water were lost due to infrastructure issues. Of that total, 30 billion gallons of water loss can be attributed to broken pipes and water leaks — enough to provide a year’s supply of water to nearly 1.2 million average American households.
The TWDB Water Loss Audits Summary Report, a repository of data, illustrates that in 2021, the East Texas Water Planning Region (I), in which the largest cities include Beaumont, Tyler, Lufkin and Nacogdoches, led all other regions with a reported water loss average of 79.87 gallons per connection per day. They were followed by Region F, where the major cities include Midland, Odessa and San Angelo, with a water loss average of 78.54 gallons per connection per day. The statewide water loss average in 2021 was 54.68 gallons per connection per day (Exhibit 2).
|Year||Average Statewide Water
|Number of Audits Submitted|
Note: Data are from submitted water loss audits after quality control has been completed.
Water loss audits with obvious data issues were removed.
Source: Texas Water Development Board Summary Audits by Category
TWDB indicates that by 2070, prominent water use categories (irrigation, livestock, manufacturing, mining, municipal and steam-electric) may experience income losses and job losses due to the anticipated decrease in the state’s water supply should water management strategies from the SWP not be implemented. Municipal water use is anticipated to experience more than 671,000 job losses by 2070, the largest number of job losses of all water use categories (Exhibit 3).
|Water Use Category||Economic Impact||2020||2030||2040||2050||2060||2070|
Source: Texas Water Development Board
Agriculture-related sectors are especially hard hit by water loss. The drought of record experienced in Texas was between 1950 and 1957, causing crop losses of more than $3 billion, or $27 billion in 2017 dollars. When adjusted for inflation in 2023 dollars, the total in crop losses is $34 billion. The worst drought in recent years occurred between 2010 and 2014, impacting 100 percent of the state and costing an estimated $17 billion in losses in 2011 alone.
The drought of record is the period when natural hydrological conditions provided the least amount of water supply. Generally, this also corresponds with high water usage rates. The drought of record is considered a reasonable benchmark for planning because it reflects quite severe, extended drought conditions (the worst experienced ever on record) and uses the best available, actionable science, grounded in historical data and patterns.
Source: Texas Water Development Board
Texas’ cotton crop, for example, has experienced harvesting declines. The state’s most produced crop, accounting for nearly $2 billion in state exports in 2021, was estimated to experience a $2 billion loss of regional economic activity (before crop insurance) in the High Plains region of Texas in 2022, according to the International Center for Agricultural Competitiveness at Texas Tech University. Additionally, in 2022, farmers across the U.S., including Texas, were anticipated to plant their smallest crop of cotton since 2009, harvesting just 2.9 million bales — 62 percent less than in 2021. Drought conditions are expected to force farmers to abandon two-thirds of acres planted in 2023, a historic high abandonment rate, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Water conservation includes innovative practices that reduce water consumption and improve efficiency to meet future demand; those highlighted by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure include technology relating to leak detection, seismic resilient pipes, smart water quality monitoring and real-time data sensors. The ASCE suggests that these innovative practices improve resilience of water systems by allowing utilities to respond to changing climate conditions; improve efficiency of operations by reducing water losses; and deliver real-time data that allow for interactive decision-making.
According to a 2022 report by the Texas Water Conservation Advisory Council, irrigation conservation represents the state’s best opportunity to achieve significant water use savings. This is because the SWP projections estimated that agriculture irrigation accounted for 53 percent of all water use in the state in 2020, the highest among all water use categories, followed by municipal water demand (Exhibit 4).
|Water Use Category, 2020||Projected Water Demand, 2020|
Source: Texas Water Development Board
Precision agricultural technology, coupled with expanded access to broadband connection, can help farmers reduce fuel and water usage. High-speed internet connectivity is necessary for digital technologies in agriculture to reach their full potential and substantially increase crop and animal yields, improve distribution and reduce input costs such as the expense of raw materials and labor.
The variability in water supply and aging infrastructure throughout the state requires investments in the use, quality and impact of water. From its inception in 1957 through April 2023, TWDB has offered a variety of loan and grant programs providing approximately $33.6 billion in funding for the planning, acquisition, design and construction of water-related infrastructure and other water quality improvements.
According to TWDB’s Water Supply and Infrastructure Division, since 2013 alone the TWDB has provided more than $12 billion to water infrastructure in Texas through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) program and the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) program. Other TWDB programs, such as the Economically Distressed Areas Program and the Texas Water Development Fund (WDF), have provided additional funding for water infrastructure needs, according to TWDB.
For projects that address aging infrastructure (outside the DWSRF and SWIFT programs), the WDF has increased funding. TWDB committed $20 million toward addressing aging infrastructure needs in 2022, up from $4.5 million in 2018.
Additionally, the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law in 2021, appropriates more than $50 billion to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure nationwide. Texas expects to receive approximately $2.5 billion through the IIJA to improve water and wastewater infrastructure over the next five years. According to TWDB, the agency received $222.3 million in 2023 from IIJA, of which 49 percent must be committed to projects in the form of principal forgiveness.
The availability of sufficient water supplies to support business and industry, economic development efforts and public health and safety is vital to the continued strength of the state.
“With the population ballooning and businesses booming, it comes as no surprise that Texas will need a lot of water to stay afloat. But planning for Texas’ future water needs requires the dedication and resourcefulness of organizations and passionate individuals,” Hegar says.
The 88th Texas Legislature in 2023 supported Texas water with the passage of Senate Bill 28. The bill was passed to support the financial assistance provided by TWDB and the programs administered by the agency to fund water supply projects that create new water sources for the state including desalination projects, produced water treatment projects, aquifer storage and recovery projects, and the development of infrastructure to transport water that is made available by the new water supply projects. Texas voters will get the opportunity to weigh in on a proposed constitutional amendment to create the Texas Water Fund to help finance water projects in the state. This fund will only be established if the proposed constitutional amendment, Proposition 6 (PDF), is approved by Texas voters in November. FN