It is common for water to be described as the lifeblood of human civilization. Without it, life is imperiled. On the other hand, too much can cause catastrophe. Rarely, even in Texas, is the contrast that absolute. In the daily commerce of Texas, its people, communities, and industries, water more closely aligns with music, a gift of human enterprise that makes its presence felt everywhere, accompanying every productive activity.
Like a great symphony, water generates remarkable benefits for a civilization’s body, mind, and spirit. The annual $1.89 trillion Texas economy, the second largest state economy and ninth largest in the world, is entirely dependent on access to adequate supplies of water. All 29.5 million Texas residents, and 13.7 million workers, rely on access to clean fresh water. Supplying drinking water and treating wastewater is such a big industry in Texas that it employs 10,300 people, according to federal figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But like a feverish movie soundtrack, water scarcity or overabundance portend calamity. The drought of the 1950s pushed 100,000 Texas farmers and ranchers out of business. The 2011 drought, which affected almost every county, caused $8 billion in agricultural losses, and indirect costs of $16.9 billion.
Some 500 million trees died in wildfires and drought that year, harming the state’s $18 billion timber industry alone. The Texas State Comptroller said drought resulted in a loss of 100,000 jobs. From 1980 to 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas led all states, by far, in losses from severe storms and flooding. In 2017 alone, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that stalled near Houston, caused $125 billion in damages.
Since the 1950s, when Texas spent most of the decade contending with the consequences of the most severe period of drought in its contemporary history, the state has largely focused civic concerns and planning on avoiding cultural disruption and economic losses that accompany water scarcity. Yet rapid population growth and industrial development have outpaced the state’s capacity to relieve the pressure of deep droughts.
Three widely watched metrics support this conclusion: job losses, income reduction, and total dollar losses to the economy.
In the previous five-year State Water Plan published in 2012, the Texas Water Development Board, the central water data-gathering and planning agency, said that if the state didn’t act to conserve water and develop new supplies, a prolonged drought as dire as the one that occurred seven decades ago would be ruinous. By 2060, it projected, water scarcity would push 1 million people out of work, reduce incomes by $11.9 billion annually, and cause $115.7 billion in total annual losses to the economy.
In 2017, even with such practical changes as Panhandle farmers’ introduction of water-saving crop-production measures, and more of the state’s electricity being produced with wind and solar generation (which use scant amounts of water), the Texas Water Board said much more was required to secure the state’s water supply. In the State Water Plan published that year, the Water Board projected that unless more effective water management practices were adopted, by 2070 job losses would total 1.3 million, the drop in annual income would be $73 billion, and total losses to the economy would reach $151 billion.
“Water is the economy in Texas,” said Dr. Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi. “It drives everything, particularly as you get less of it.”