For a glimpse of the future of water in fast-growing Austin and Central Texas, don’t look to the past of reengineered rivers, multi-dam reservoirs and centralized treatment plants typical of America’s 50,000 city utilities.
Rather, the future is a gravelly construction site of perhaps 75 by 30 yards in Central Austin. Near the site of the now-shuttered Highland Mall, now being converted to the newest campus of Austin Community College, is this lot wrapped with chain link and ‘No Trespassing’ signs. It is sandwiched between a newly-built parking garage and a rising glass and steel office building that will soon house 1,000 or so city employees. A new permitting department.
On that patch of ground, an innovative membrane-based, $1.7 million, closed loop recycling system is set to be installed by May. With a capacity to recycle up to 5,000 gallons a day and blend it with captured rainwater, some 84 percent of the water used by employees and groundskeepers – essentially for everything but drinking – will be used over and over again. And this is just the pilot project. In three years, all new apartment, condominium, office or retail structures built larger than 250,000 square feet in Austin will include such “black water reuse” units or similar innovations on site.
Welcome to “One Water” a radical rethink of the entire way cities and utility districts supply and manage water in Austin as well as in a growing number of other cities including San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New York in the United States, along with scores of urban utilities in Australia, Singapore, Europe and Israel.
“We can’t use water the way we’ve used it in the past,” said Katherine Jashinski, the Austin Water engineer running point on the project. “And it’s not just about water, it’s about overarching issues of growth and climate change, education and the need for a whole new skill set in water management.”
In addition to a future of ubiquitous and self-contained black water reuse, this vision pairs with the so-called “purple pipes” of two distinct networks, one on the city’s north and another to the south. Together, these 60 miles of pipe already provide treated “gray water” to golf courses and other institutional users. Some 3 percent of Austin’s water use now comes from these two systems, a percentage that will only grow as One Water management becomes the norm.
It’s hard to exaggerate the implications of this new operating system for aggressive water reuse hardly seen outside of such a place as the International Space Station — where even the condensate from the sweat of laboratory animals gets recycled. But it’s also hard to exaggerate the looming crisis of water globally, nationally and in Texas.
All the more so in the climate change “hot spot” of Central Texas, which is also America’s fastest growing region. By 2030, the so-called “Texas Triangle,” bounded by Dallas-Fort Worth in the north, Houston on the south, San Antonio on its western edge and Austin at the center, will grow by 20 percent to a population of 20 million. It will become a conurbation larger than greater New York City, but in a climate almost twice as dry.
It’s a dilemma hardly unique to Texas. Globally, demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40 percent in a decade, according to the United Nations. Today, some 1.7 billion people live above aquifers where water use exceeds recharge rates. And this includes much of Texas. Of the world’s 37 major trans-boundary aquifers, 21 are already depleted or polluted, including the Allende-Piedras Negras aquifer that is just one of the underground stores of water beneath the disappearing Rio Grande River.
Texas certainly knows a great deal about droughts; the last one lasted six years. But climate scientists warn droughts of the future could well be more akin to droughts of the past, like one in the 1600s that lasted five full decades.
That’s the potential future already being seen around the globe. While Australia’s record temperatures and wildfires grab global headlines, the backdrop is the fact that 2019 was its driest in 120 years with many rivers running 50 percent lower than in the 1990s. In 2014, Brazil’s Sao Paolo came within 20 days of running out of water. A year later, South Africa’s Cape Town came within three days of the same “Day Zero” fate. Closer to home, during the 2008-2014 drought, the small community of Spicewood Springs on Lake Travis ran out of water, the first Texas town to do so.
Particularly in America’s arid west and southwest, as much as $2 billion a year in agricultural production is lost to water scarcity while some 2 million people in America lack access to safe drinking water – including a half million in Texas. Scores of low-level skirmishes rage across regions in Texas where groundwater is either entirely unregulated or is else governed by districts organized along county lines which align haphazardly at best with aquifer boundaries.
In just one case, east of Austin near Bastrop, well-dependent landowners are in a standoff with housing developers seeking to tap the area’s Simsboro Aquifer. They, in turn, are pitted against the Lower Colorado River Authority, or LCRA, which for almost 80 years has managed the Highland Lakes system of reservoirs. The LCRA wants to increase pumping of wells it has in the region, far beyond its original charter to manage the dams west of Austin.
Overuse of underground water along the Gulf Coast has caused land to subside as deep as 19 feet in areas around Houston and Galveston. The famous “Jacob’s Well” spring in the Hill Country town of Wimberly dried up for the first time in history in 2000 and again in 2008. And for Austin, whose consumption has trebled since the 1970s, and which gets 100 percent of its water from the Colorado River, there is no sustainable way to significantly increase supply. At least not by conventional means.
Water scarcity is certainly the global story. But the effective responses – like Austin’s – are almost entirely local. Virtually all innovation is diffusing upward from cities and coalitions of cities that are reimagining flows through organizational sieves and bureaucratic conduits at a speed with which the more senior levels of government cannot keep pace.
“Water flows in a circular way; our economic and industrial systems do not,” wrote Alejandro Litovsky, in the book Realistic Hope – Facing Global Challenges that advocates for the principles of One Water. That 2018 book was edited by Betty Sue Flowers, a University of Texas at Austin professor emerita and the former director of the LBJ Presidential Library. Litovsky is the founder of London-based Earth Security Group, which advises local governments and companies on sustainable systems.
“Today we understand better than we did 500 years ago that river basins and aquifers, whose ecological integrity is needed to sustain the water cycle, require redefinition of how to connect political and ecological boundaries,” Litovsky wrote.
That redefinition is in fact the essence of what Austin and like-minded cities, including Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, are doing with the principles of One Water.
“One Water is a profound paradigm shift in the way we view and manage water, and is often a locally-led movement,” argues Katy Lackey, program manager at the U.S. Water Alliance, a national non-profit organization with more than 100 members including public and private utilities, private water companies and engineering firms and non-profit groups. “The One Water approach has become a catalyst for water agencies, city governments, farmers, non-governmental agencies, community groups and environmentalists to work together.”
The concept and term were first used in Australia in the early 2000s. In the Netherlands, the phrase used is “Living Waters.” And Singapore calls the concept “Four Taps.” Over the past five to ten years, the U.S. Water Alliance has been the driver of the One Water coalition and its most prominent champion. Last summer the organization held its annual One Water Summit in Austin, attended by more than 1,000 local officials, utility managers and community representatives from around the nation.
As if to demonstrate the degree with which local authorities are embracing the concept, the 50-year-old regional utility in Monterey, Calif. formally renamed itself “One Water Monterey” in 2017
Cities act while state and federal governments look on
It’s not that the state level of government in Texas – including the State Water Development Board and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – is ignoring the problem. But state governance is constrained and lumbering and its agencies proceed in fits and starts. The water board created in 1957 after the infamous, nine-year “drought of record” – of a severity only exceeded by the 2008-14 drought — envisions a broad scope of action in its latest plan. Ever deeper cooperation and coordination among local water agencies and 14 new dams and reservoirs beyond the 196 now in the state are among its ambitions. But the best sites are long taken and the scale of financing required make this scenario implausible.
Another burden is that the state plan’s top priority is conservation with voluntary sales of water rights between willing buyers and sellers, or to a state water trust. Indeed, a brisk “water marketing” economy has sprung up in Arizona, California and other western states with municipal water authorities spending as much as $100 million a year to those who own senior rights to river or surface water.
It sounds logical, says Sharlene Leurig, CEO of Texas Water Trade, a non-profit founded last year to broker such exchange. But in Texas, most agricultural water rights were long ago transferred to the 24 regional river authorities such as the LCRA. The marketplace for water simply doesn’t exist as it does elsewhere. “Which is why there was only about a million dollars in such exchange last year,” she says.
And as if those sources of inertia were not enough, state authorities are burdened by yet another factor that officials in water circles speak of in hushed tones. This is climate change denialism. Gov. Greg Abbot and other leaders effectively forbid mention of the word, concept and its risk in state and regional plans. The LCRA for example, autonomous but with a board appointed by the governor, has no long-term environmental plan. At least not overtly.
The old tools Texas has relied upon, of tapping into groundwater and reengineering rivers, have simply reached their limits, says Professor Andrew Sansom, who heads the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos.
New reservoirs are unlikely and unrealistic, he argues. Critically, the fact that Texas treats groundwater rights as it treats mineral rights, essentially as private property to be mined at will, needs urgent attention. And he sees desalinization technology playing a growing role in Texas’ future.
“One Water is potentially the paradigm shift we need,” says Sansom, who authored the seminal “Water in Texas – An Introduction, in 2008. That said, it’s not a magic bullet.
More than 90 percent of the tributaries to the Colorado River are above Austin and “everyone lives downstream of someone else,” Sansom cautions.
In large measure, this involves another peculiarity of Texas water law: essentially if you catch a raindrop in the state, you own it. In other states, water falling on the ground is a public resource subject to the same adjudication and allocation as water in rivers and streams.
Leurig, who also served as the chair of Austin’s council-appointed task force that developed the One Water plan, seconds Sansom’s concern. Truly radical capture of rainwater is at the further end Austin’s master plan, in a so-called “off channel reservoir” envisioned for 2070 that would hold up to 25,000 acre feet of captured rain water – equal to about 20 percent of the city’s current consumption – as insurance against drought.
It’s not a looming issue, but it would potentially have dramatic effect on supplies for cities and wildlife downstream, say she and Sansom.
“The real broad message” says Sansom, “is that we are going to have to take an approach with a suite of strategies.”
It is a dilemma that Austin water officials readily concede. And in fact, all scenarios envisioned by the city anticipate substantial return flows of water to the river post-treatment for reasons that include the downstream ecology. Thus the trick is to use each drop, regardless of source, as many times as possible before that happens.
So cities, not inclined toward the state’s call to buy up water rights, and unburdened with the need to dismiss climate change, are not waiting. Austin’s City Council approved in late 2018 its 500-page “Water Forward” plan to chart the next century of water planning. Houston, Dallas and San Antonio have similar initiatives and projects in place. San Antonio’s famous “River Walk” for example, is entirely a recirculating loop of treated wastewater.
Other much-heralded local success stories in Texas include a 2011 accord reached between 39 stakeholders – including San Antonio, New Braunfels and San Marcos – to protect the southern segment of the Edwards Aquifer which provides drinking water to 2 million people as well as irrigation and wildlife habitat. That accord inspired a book on the tortured negotiations, Heads Above Water – The Inside Story of the Edward Aquifer Implementation Plan, by the mediator, Robert L. Gulley.
Austin, of course, has had its own measures in place since the mid-1990s to protect its section of the Edwards Aquifer, which placed constraints on development primarily to safeguard iconic Barton Creek Springs. And Austin’s long-term planning, now animated by One Water, and termed “Integrated Water Reuse” in the city’s new “Water Forward” master plan, also includes measures to protect aquifers to the east of the city, including the Colorado River Alluvial Aquifer. Potentially, recharging these aquifers with reclaimed water for use in drought years is among plans.
In sum, all these plans envision at least the trebling of water reuse over the next 20 years, in addition to conservation. Leurig, for one, thinks that may be too conservative and that Austin can do even more.
‘Biomicry’ and the water that cities create
“Cities are not just consumers of water, they are also creators of water,” Leurig says, explaining that this distinction deserves greater attention. Condensate from air conditioners, for example, is being recycled by the University of Texas at Austin and at least one Austin hotel. Drawn from ambient humidity, this is water that is not part of the usual zero sum calculation of resources. Even more radical, she suggests, is the concept of “direct potable reuse,” essentially bringing waste water up to a level of purity as to make it drinkable.
It’s more than a small social and even psychological hurdle. But it’s coming. El Paso, faced with disappearing snowmelt that feeds the Rio Grande, may in fact be the first major city in the United States to attempt this. Other cities, from San Diego to Sydney Australia are seriously looking at it.
“The ultimate metaphor for One Water is the International Space Station, where this is the only option,” Leurig says. “In my lifetime, I know I am going to see this widespread.”
That’s not in Austin’s immediate water cards. But almost everything else is. Thus One Water is not your grandparents’ recycling of dish water. It’s not about replacing your lawn with a rock garden or installing a low-flow showerhead. Or even about rigging a tank below the rain gutters on your roof to catch the runoff. Although all those conservation measures and more are certainly at the center of Austin’s new 100-year plan for meeting the needs of a city that will quadruple in size in that time.
Rather, think of “biomimicry,” the emerging science of manufactured systems that solve complex human problems through imitation of the models and elements of nature. In this case, the cycle of rivers to the sea, from there to evaporation to clouds, and from the clouds to rain and back again to the rivers.
Or think of the miniaturization of so many processes, from the advent of laparoscopic surgery to the evolution of smart phones that now put more computing power in your hand than NASA used to put a man on the moon a half century ago.
That this then leads to the idea that there are no different categories of waste, storm, black, gray, rain and drinking water, seems on the face of it simple enough. There’s just water. We have no more or less of it then when it was formed in interstellar gas clouds and delivered to earth as it was being formed more than 4 billion years ago.
That may be a notion that is as easy to grasp as high school physics. But converting that insight into policy is Austin’s Herculean task.
“And what that means is the whole debate about reusing wastewater is kind of silly, because all the water we’ve got right now has been used over and over again..,” said Charles Fishman , author of the Big Thirst – The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, in an interview shortly after that book was published a decade ago. “… all the water we have is all the water we have ever had.”
One Water as an approach is still evolving, suggests Lackey at the U.S. Water Alliance. For many, the transformation is comparable to the revolution that followed English physician John Snow’s tracing of a cholera outbreak to a water pump in 1854 London that proved definitively that disease is borne by water and not by “bad air.”
Snow is the rare public hero in the realm of water management. Unlike with police or fire departments, there are no TV dramas or epic movies about those working in urban utilities. But these organizations are at least as complex. And much older. Historians date various systems to pipe water into communities, and pipe sewerage away, to as far back as 4,000 years ago in the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete. Mayans, Romans and early civilizations in the Indus Valley of today’s India and Pakistan all had water infrastructure that would feel familiar to today’s utility manager. But modern notions of how to organize the flows of life effectively trace to Snow’s insight in mid-century London. From the systems demanded and created following that newly discovered health imperative, through to the rapid spread of water treatments plants in 1920s America, and on to the federal funding of wastewater treatment that ensued with the era of the 1972 Clean Water Act and other environmental legislation, utilities have evolved into mazes of highly specialized silos.
Not only are they highly specialized, they are also extraordinarily expensive. Austin Water’s budget is almost $600 million – 14 percent of all city spending. But such systems are classically out of sight and out of mind. (Except when they are not, such as when historic flooding overwhelmed Austin’s treatment facilities in November 2018 and forced mandatory boiling of drinking water. Or more dramatically, when toxic levels of lead were found in the drinking water of Flint, Mich., in 2014.)
Integrating the operating silos of modern water management
In Austin and other cities, one division is typical responsible for securing water, in Austin’s case in partnership the LCRA which operates Lake Austin and the five others in the Highland Lakes system. Another unit is responsible with ensuring that the flow is potable, meets drinking water standards and then this team gets it to your house or business. Another unit is responsible for what flows from your house or business as waste water and is also charged with getting rid of it, typically by treating and returning it to the waterway from whence it came. Storm runoff is yet another division of labor, with its team taking the principal task of preventing floods while making sure that “its” water doesn’t mix with the other two streams – which is what happened in Austin in November 2018.
And then there’s a team to manage the physics of it all, making sure that pressure is maintained. Consider the problems Austin Water is facing with gentrification in East Austin. Civil engineer Kasey Faust, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who frequently collaborates with the city, explains:
Blue collar residents, who typically work in shifts or as physical laborers, tend to shower when they get home from work. In the late afternoon or early evening. White collar professionals, however, typically bathe in the morning, peaking demand at 7 a.m. When one group replaces another, the entire geometry of service and performance must change.
“Demographic change is just one of the many challenges of growing cities, shrinking cities and the uncertainties of climate change,” Faust says. “These are the changes that are forcing cities’ hands to adapt and innovate.”
That adaptation and innovation is contoured in many ways. Already, in addition to the on site pilot project taking shape in Central Austin, the gray water reuse system of purple pipes ties into 131 “dual plumbing” systems of large water users. It is used by UT Austin in the cooling towers of its massive heating and air conditioning systems. The new Central Library and the Travis County Courthouse are also connected and reliant for non-potable uses on its reclaimed water, as are Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the Google offices downtown.
Behind these innovations are coming real time water use monitors for homeowners, a sort of Fitbit for consumption that will be an app on your smartphone. Plans envision “distributed waste water systems,” essentially miniature treatment plants that will treat a subdivision’s waste then return it via yet more purple pipes for use in outside watering or laundering. Another innovation on the roadmap is so-called “sewer mining,” a technique whereby a percentage of the flow in a sewer line headed to a central treatment plant is siphoned back to a small, decentralized, neighborhood treatment site for local non-potable uses – that is everything shy of drinking water. Sewer mining is already used in Australia and in a pilot project in Athens, Greece.
And there’s even a plan to use Lady Bird Lake as an “indirect potable reuse” basin, in other words waste-to-drinking-water by a circuitous route. Gray water would be pumped into the lake to be blended with regular river flows. With this extra increment of volume, water would then be pumped from the lake to the city’s treatment plant off the Colorado near Red Bud Isle to be purified to drinking water standards. The trigger for this plan would be when water levels in lakes Buchanan and Travis, the main storage reservoirs of the Highland Lakes system, drop to 20 percent or below.
These and other changes, of course, are subject to continuing review and amendment. Most, including the reuse pilot project set to launch in May, still need various regulatory approvals. Many changes will require amendments to city ordinances to allow various pieces of the city’s water bureaucracy to collaborate in new ways. And some, such as the longer-term and aggressive use of rain water, will demand yet-to-be-imagined changes in Texas water law and negotiations with downstream users
Yet the ultimate achievement of Austin’s broad new water initiative may actually be beyond Austin itself, as the city becomes a laboratory for what works in an ever more thirsty world.
“The overall change is that water is no longer a zero sum game,” upending the assumptions of generations of water planners, engineering firms, water lobbies and often utilities themselves,
says Leurig, of Texas Water Trade. “By thinking outside the physical system and considering the overall water ecology, it’s new opportunity for all.”
It ultimately means more cost effective management of water. It means more equitable use of water. And it is ultimately the pioneering of decentralized tools with global implications and promise.
Austin is not just remaking its own relationship with water. Its part of a global remaking of everyone’s relationship with water.
And it’s so much more than just a water reuse system now rising atop a patch of gravel in Central Austin.
Editor’s note: A clarification – While Austin’s future scenarios for use of water from the Colorado River envision maintenance of substantial return flows of treated, post-use water to the river for ecological reasons, the city is not under legal obligation to do so. An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that the practice was contractually mandated.
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