Op-ed published in the Austin American Statesman and the San Antonio Express
Our World Is Changing. Our Water Infrastructure Should Too.
The World Health Organization estimates that 2.1 billion people lack access to safe and available drinking water at home. Over a million Austin Water customers temporarily recently joined the ranks of water insecure people as our water treatment systems were overwhelmed with flood-caused sedimentation. And it isn’t the first time Texans have lacked access to clean water. At least 90,000 of the estimated 500,000 Texans living in neighborhoods lacking infrastructure don’t have basic household water service, and just last year, the entire population of Beaumont, in addition thousands of other Texans, lost water service in the aftermath of Harvey.
As changes in weather extremes, population, and urbanization continue to impact Texas’s communities, urban water management needs a different approach.
I spend most of my work hours researching, teaching, and speaking about water resources, but as my own household muddled our way through our first 24 hours of Austin’s boil water advisory, my daughter pointed out what, in hindsight, seems obvious: why exactly do we usually use drinking water to flush our toilets?
The short answer is that the one-quality-fits-all urban water systems found in Austin and most of the rest of the U.S. do some things really well: they deliver high-quality, safe water for all household uses. It is a dependable, centralized infrastructure.
But what they don’t do well is accommodate a changing world. We need a more nimble and nuanced approach to urban water management, and not only because of climate change and growing urban populations, but also because many communities urgently need to address failing infrastructure systems.
Simply put, different water sources, such as reclaimed wastewater or rainwater, can effectively— and with the right precautions, safely— substitute for non-potable water uses. We need to reconsider how we use our valuable, and sometimes vulnerable, drinking water.
However, this change will be challenging to achieve. Although we already have many of the tools and strategies that would allow for non-potable water use, changing our existing infrastructure requires new funding, interagency cooperation, and private sector engagement. And any infrastructure changes require that we anticipate and avoid potential unintended impacts such as health risks and equity concerns.
Future challenges aside, you can catch glimpses of our water future, in real time, in Austin. My graduate students and I recently took a field trip downtown to see almost two dozen examples of new designs and strategies that are working toward a secure water future: everything from riparian buffers and raingardens that help keep the Colorado River clean, to water conserving landscapes, to water systems that use rainwater, reclaimed water, and even air conditioning condensate. These are the solutions that we need to integrate into every new and retrofitted building and site in Austin; they are a first step toward a more water-secure future.
But as fascinating as these examples were, our discussion kept wandering back to the flood-swollen, sediment-filled rapids of the Colorado River. And that was the most important lesson: even though we have some good examples of what the future of urban water might look like, the vast majority of Austin buildings, businesses, and households is solely dependent on this river. When it’s dry, so are we. When it’s flooded, so are we. And when flood water filled with too much sediment pushes its way through treatment plants that aren’t prepared for record-setting rain events, we can’t be guaranteed that our tap water is safe to drink.
So, during a week in which our water system, so often out of sight and out of mind, enters our collective consciousness, we need to continue our public discussion about our water system’s vulnerabilities, to learn more about ways to create a more robust and secure water future, and to prioritize actions and choices that will encourage residents, the private sector, and a dizzying array of public agencies to work together to build a water system that allows Austin and every other Texas community to thrive in the changing decades ahead. Because if we don’t, we’ve seen what can happen: we join others around the globe who struggle every day to obtain clean drinking water.
Katherine Lieberknecht is an assistant professor of community and regional planning in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin. She also co-leads UT Austin’s first grand challenge research program, Planet Texas 2050.