The Story of Texas: History in the Making August 2017

In the first part of this two-part series, we explored the early history of Texas through 1950. Water helped define where people lived, when they moved, and whether they survived. Water has always been the main, but sometimes invisible, character in our colorful history. The story of Texas water is the story of Texas—and we are still writing it with every action taken (or not taken) today.

With a population of 7.7 million in 1950, post–World War II Texas was experiencing a great increase in per capita water consumption, rapid urbanization, population growth, and industrial expansion—all of which competed for the state's limited water supplies.[1] State leaders recognized the need to address water policy and planning to ensure a positive future for Texans, and that need became even more urgent following the 1950 to 1957 drought, known as the drought of record.

By the time the drought ended, all but 10 of Texas' 254 counties had been declared federal disaster areas. The drought's severity was the catalyst for major state legislation. In 1957, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution authorizing $200 million in state bonds to help construct water conservation and supply projects. The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) was created to administer these funds.

Before 1960, most of the water projects in Texas were planned from a local viewpoint to satisfy present and immediate local demands. This changed when the legislature passed the Water Planning Act of 1957 during a special session, making the Texas Board of Water Engineers (created in 1913) responsible for statewide water resource planning, including developing forward-looking state water plans. In 1961 the Texas Board of Water Engineers produced a plan to meet the state's municipal and industrial water needs beyond 1980.

A few years later, the State recognized the need for a longer range and more comprehensive statewide water plan than was produced in 1961. During the 59th Texas Legislature, the state's water agencies were realigned and the TWDB was assigned responsibility for the planning and financing of water development. The TWDB produced our first state water plan in 1968. The plan revealed a forward-thinking sentiment that we still share today: "To delay the full development of our water resources will place a burden upon the future of Texas from which it might never recover."

Subsequent statewide water plans were developed in 1984, 1990, 1992, and 1997, each with 50-year outlooks to ensure sufficient water supplies for future Texans. In 1996, another severe statewide drought resulted in a $2 billion loss to agricultural producers, again revealing Texas' reliance on water and vulnerability to drought. Lake and reservoir levels across the state dropped in some places to just a trickle.

The drought led to the 1997 Texas Legislature's deliberate move to change how Texas plans for water supply and make sure the state is ready for another drought of record. The new bottom-up approach formalized a regional water planning process based on 16 self-governing planning groups representing 16 regional water planning areas. Each planning group was required to prepare its own regional water plan on five-year cycles.

Since the regional water planning process began in 1997, the TWDB has published four state water plans (2002, 2007, 2012, and 2017) that serve as the roadmap to address future water needs. As the needs, population, lifestyles, and technologies change, so must the plans—and that's where the five-year cycles become particularly beneficial.

As shown throughout history and recognized in the 1968 State Water Plan, "in the past, Texas citizens generally have been able to live wherever they chose without concern for the availability of water… either in the immediate vicinity or at relatively short distances. People settled, developing these supplies where they were found; investments were made, economies developed, and social and cultural values accumulated."

Today, water continues to drive development of homes, businesses, and culture. But whereas people once settled near water, most now expect water to be delivered to them through their local utility. With an estimated 70 percent increase in population, 17 percent increase in water demand, and 11 percent decrease in Texas' existing water supplies—those that can already be relied on in the event of drought—by the year 2070, we are faced with the ever-present question of, "Where will our water come from?"

Based on the 16 regional water plans, the 2017 State Water Plan outlines approximately 5,500 water management strategies and 2,500 strategy projects to meet water demands 50 years from now. Of the strategy supplies in 2070, approximately 45 percent are based on conservation, drought management, and reuse; 45 percent on surface water resources; and 10 percent on groundwater. Conservation is by far the most frequently recommended strategy found in all regional water plans.

Communities and water providers are already moving their projects forward, many with financial assistance through the TWDB. Following the 2011 drought, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) program* was created in 2013 to help finance state water plan projects. Approximately $5.6 billion in SWIFT funds has been committed to entities in just the first three cycles of the program, including more than $450 million for conservation and reuse projects and more than $28 million for agricultural and rural projects.

Texans across our state are proactively and innovatively working together to secure the water we need. The success we've seen so far is a reminder that every community, from small towns to large cities, adds value to the regional and state water planning efforts. We should also take a proactive role as individuals by making simple, daily conservation choices that add up over time and can make a real difference in our lifetime and that of future Texans.

What will Texas' water story look like 50, 100, and 200 years from now? What will future Texans say about the way we managed this precious resource? It's up to us to write the history we want to be known!

*The SWIFT program includes two funds, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas (SWIRFT). Revenue bonds for the program are issued through SWIRFT.

  1. Texas State Library and Archives Commission Online, "United States and Texas Populations 1850-2016," accessed July 07, 2017, https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/census.html; Freese, Simon W., and Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore. A Century in the Works: Freese and Nichols Consulting Engineering, 1894–1994. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994. 232.
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