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New study shows water loss is a major issue in Texas

The lead author of the study shares ways utility companies can lessen the impact.

AUSTIN, Texas — Water was the hot topic under the Capitol dome on Wednesday as the House Committee on Natural Resources held a public hearing.

Lawmakers heard from experts on a variety of topics, like water loss and Texas' aging infrastructure.

The National Wildlife Federation's Texas Coast and Water Program released a study on Wednesday showing that in 2020, homes and businesses lost on average 51 gallons of water every day. The study also found that those losses were enough to meet water needs for Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo and Lubbock combined.

Jennifer Walker was the lead author of that study.   

The following is a conversation she had with KVUE's Jenni Lee.

Jenni Lee: Jennifer Walker, thanks for joining us this afternoon and for your time.

Jennifer Walker: "Yeah, thank you for having me." 

Jenni Lee: The House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing today to talk about water. How are we doing on our water supply?

Jennifer Walker: "So our water supply in Texas, we have a really robust water supply planning process that we do in the state. So we've got great plans in place and it really is on a community-by-community basis when you look at water supply. Some communities have long-term water supplies well into the future. Some have shorter-term challenges that they're going to need to deal with. But it really is when looking at water supply, it's about more than that because it's not just the amount of water that we have to meet our needs. We pump that water into a water treatment plant which needs maintenance and may need to be expanded...and requires ongoing care and feeding like many big operations we have. We have pipes and water infrastructure all through our communities that deliver water from our water supply, from the water treatment plant to our homes and businesses. And then we have wastewater pipes and wastewater treatment. So all of those things really together make up our water supply and our water our water supply infrastructure."

Jenni Lee: I'm sorry, Jennifer, to interrupt you. Tell us how the Austin area is doing. How are we doing as far as water is concerned?

Jennifer Walker: "...Austin has had some challenges. We've had challenges, Winter Storm Uri, many, many communities in the state did as well. We've had some challenges with boil water notices and other things like that, but we also have a water supply plan that we're looking for out into the future. We're really trying to think about the impacts that climate change may have on our water supply and plan for that. Austin is investing in reclaimed water lines and that's taking wastewater and treating it to a high level and re-piping it through the city to be used for non-potable uses. And we're exploring lots of ways to diversify water supplies in Austin. So, you know, like many communities, we have some things that are going really well, some things that were some challenges that we're trying to overcome as a community."

Jenni Lee: Jennifer, you're the lead author on a water loss study that you presented to lawmakers today. What are some of the major points of study?

Jennifer Walker: "...We presented our study... called Hidden Reservoirs Addressing Water Loss in Texas to the House Natural Resources Committee today. They are having interim hearings on some other charges of looking at water supply. And so we presented in our research that we've been doing over the past year, and our analysis indicates that as of 2020, Texas utilities are losing at least 572,000 acre-feet of water per year. This corresponds to an average of about 51 gallons per service connection per day."

Jenni Lee: That's a lot of water, Jennifer.

Jennifer Walker: "Yeah, it's a lot of water. So if you think about your house, my house, and think about that, the water in the course of the day and delivering water to my home, that 51 gallons of that is lost along the way. It's a lot. And so we really try to think of ways to make these numbers, are very big, to make them bite-sized and understandable to all of us. And it's not that the water utilities are necessarily doing anything wrong. The infrastructure that we deliver our water through may be suffering from underinvestment or disinvestment. And it really requires continued attention and investment and really good data to understand the condition of our systems and to make sure that we are trying to reduce water loss. That is the earth. This is water that we already have in our communities. We're just we're pulling it out of our lakes. We're treating it. We're putting in our distribution systems. And a portion of it is getting lost along the way. If we can lose less water in our distribution systems, that's more water supply for us."

Jenni Lee: So a couple of follow-up questions here. Fifty-one gallons a day per service connection. That is her home, per business. And you had a really good comparison here. The estimated losses in 2020 were enough to meet the total annual municipal needs of Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo and Lubbock combined....

Jennifer Walker: "Exactly. Because who can really put their finger on how much 570,000-acre-feet of water is? So what we did was we took that amount and we looked at our state water plan and it lays out the water demands for all the cities in Texas. So it was just a simple mathematical exercise to look at the cities that add up to that much. And everyone is familiar with Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo and Lubbock. So if you take the 2020 water demand of all five of those cities combined, that's how much water we estimate that we're losing every year in Texas. So we can reduce that water loss by some or a lot."

Jenni Lee: It sounds like the aging infrastructure is partly to blame. So what can we do? Because there's, what, $250 million of federal funding that's available for cities and counties and utilities. What can be done to reduce water loss?

Jennifer Walker: "Yeah, so there's a lot of tools that utilities have at their disposal to reduce water loss. So we really need to, instead of looking at supply side water management strategies, some examples would be like, seawater desalination or major new reservoirs, to reduce water loss. We can invest in programs like acoustic leak detection, which helps us pinpoint leaks and find where they are in our systems. You can use sound...water makes noise to find the leaks and that pinpoint where they need to be repaired. We can look at our meters, our small and large meters, and make sure that we're measuring water accurately. Sometimes we're not actually losing water. We're just measuring it incorrectly. Meters as they age under measure water. So we really need to have an accurate count of how much water there is entering and leaving our systems. We can look at pressure management. There's water under pressure as it travels through our distribution systems. If there's too much pressure, then leaks can be exacerbated. We can get more leaks. And there's lots of other things that we can do. And many of these interventions are really cost-effective. And when you compare the kind of known costs to a lot of these types of strategies to strategies in our state, water plan, water supply strategies, they really compare quite favorably. Now, every community is going to be different. You know, if if you have a whole lot of water loss and doing something that's going to impact it, you know, there's magnitudes of scale, you know, on a per gallon basis of how much water loss you can reduce. And it may be less. So every community is different and unique."

Jenni Lee: We just got a whole bunch of rain, but we're in a drought and it's been extremely hot. So how critical is this water loss? Why should people care about it?

Jennifer Walker: "Yeah. So you're right. We have been experiencing all the weather scenarios in the past couple of years here in Texas. You know, we had a terrible drought in 2011 and 2014, which, you know, the people that were here then this summer, 2022 felt a lot like it. We've had Winter Storm Uri, we've had Hurricane Harvey. We have we've had it all. So I think really that what we're seeing as climate change is being expressed through water in a lot of ways for Texans. And so living through all of these experiences, how could water not be on people's minds? And with the drought that we've been in this past summer. I can't tell you how many conversations as a water person that works in water, in the water space. We've been having conversations for weeks about wells that are lower, spring flows that are declining, rivers that are dry. What stage of your output, what stage of your drought contingency plan are you implementing? This is the top of mind for water managers, but also water users, everybody around. And what can we do and what will this summer play out like and will it just be this summer or will it continue into the next summer like we saw? So while the rain is very, very welcome and much, much needed, we will still be in a drought when our sidewalks and our yards dry up. And so we need to be really careful about how we use water. We need to make sure in each community there are drought contingency plans are in place. And that means a drought contingency plan is a plan a community puts in place to reduce water use in the face of drought in order to prolong water supplies. It's a temporary measure. Most communities in Texas, if they aren't already, should have those plans implemented and folks should be taking action to reduce their water use."

Lee: Every community around here at least has some absolutely plan going on. Jennifer, was there anything else about your study that we need to know about?

Jennifer Walker: "Well, I think that it's really important to note that if we do a moderate and cost-effective amount of water loss mitigation could really cut Texas' current water losses in half as what we predict and deliver quite a lot of water to our communities is very achievable. We're not talking about eliminating all water loss. It's about getting more utilities to a performance level that a number of their peers in Texas have already achieved. If we can do that, we will have untapped a large volume of new water and can forego some of the expensive and contentious water supply projects that are contemplated in our state water plan. So we need to invest in making sure that our infrastructure is as tight as possible, that as much water as we can get to its intended destination makes it. This is water we already have. So let's not go out and create new supplies of water. If we can make, if we can deliver the water that we already have more efficiently, let's invest in that. We have a huge opportunity with the federal dollars coming to Texas. We have $3 billion over the next five years coming to Texas for water supply, water infrastructure, water quality. Those dollars can be invested in shoring up our infrastructure and our cities. And we think it's a really good investment."

Jenni Lee: And I want to end with the infrastructure. How bad is it? We recently received a grade for our aging infrastructure. Jennifer, what is it?

Walker: "The grade I believe, it was a C-."

Jenni Lee: So not good.

Walker: "No, it's not good. It's not good. And the thing is, every community is different. Every community has different infrastructure issues going on. So it's really important to kind of understand where you are in time and to make a plan for how to address it and to have really good data to build that on this infrastructure. These pipes are underground. You gather a lot of data to really understand how the water is coming into your system and how it's being built and metered. And everything is a complicated exercise. We need good data, we need good decision making, and we need to invest and we need to keep investing because it's not a thing that you just do once and then it's fixed. It requires investment. And we need to value water. We need to value water in such a way that it really supports these investments. And I'm not saying charge more for water. What I'm saying is we need to place a value on water."

Jenni Lee: It's a finite resource.

Walker: "A finite resource that we can't afford to waste and everybody needs it and we need to deliver it as efficiently as we can."

Lee: Jennifer Walker with the National Wildlife Federation, the Texas Coastal Water Program. Thank you so much for your time this afternoon.

Watch the full interview here:

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