Fixing aging water infrastructure, finding new ways of harvesting potable water, and building public-private partnerships were among solutions policymakers discussed Tuesday to address the statewide water crisis.
Among the speakers at the event, which was hosted by The Texas Tribune and sponsored in part by the Texas Association of Counties, was Ector County Judge Dustin Fawcett, who said the Odessa area has experienced more than 90 leaks in its 60-year-old water lines during the past two years, with the most catastrophic one occurring last summer.
Odessa's 100,000 residents lost access to water for a week after a valve failed.
"We got some folks out of DFW to come out and to really fix the situation, but even then, whenever you fix a situation, you still have a whole lot of water to replace in the system, and so it was a challenge citywide. It was a challenge countywide," Fawcett said.
The Tribune reported that in 2021, broken pipes and leaks across the state led to 30 billion gallons of lost water a day. Coupled with persistent drought conditions in large swaths of the state, the issue has alarmed state and federal lawmakers enough to prompt sweeping changes.
Although they rarely provide water to their residents, Texas counties have been pouring American Rescue Plan Act dollars into fixing aging water infrastructure. The latest issue of County magazine explores how the funding is making a difference and how counties can band together to address water issues. The fall 2022 issue of the magazine detailed El Paso County's efforts to bring water and sewer systems to colonias.
The city of El Paso's grants manager, Omar L. Martinez, said the local governments there, including the county, are turning to new technology such as artificial intelligence to "find and solve a lot of our water issues." He said to help address aging infrastructure, local governments can turn to federal tourism dollars, loans from the Texas Water Development Board, and even gentlemen's agreements with lawmakers.
"We in El Paso over the last 15 years have been in perpetual drought conditions," Martinez said. "El Paso's water story is pretty much what a lot of areas in Texas will be like in the next 50 years."
In Ector County, officials have committed $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to help shore up water and utility districts in West Odessa. The county has also created a department that enforces state law that requires developers to conduct hydrology studies.
"We also have folks down south of us … [who] truck in their water, and a lot of them were essentially screwed over by developers who didn't do any hydrology studies," Fawcett said.
In Lubbock, there are $1.2 billion in mortgages held by people who access their water from wells that will dry up in five years, according to Melanie Barnes, senior research associate in geosciences at Texas Tech University, who also spoke Tuesday.
Fawcett also spoke about the importance of developing ways to transform the water that is produced with oil and gas drilling into something that humans can use – one of the only solutions to the water crisis in his region, he said.
"We're pulling between four to 12 barrels of saltwater out of the ground as well. And what are we doing with that water? Well, we're not recycling a majority of it. We're not even recycling really a fraction of it," Fawcett said.
Part of creating the solution will be for local governments to work with universities and private companies, he said.
"We can't do it on our own with our budgets," Fawcett said. "We need to work together as a region ... to solve this."