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Business Officer Magazine
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No Stone Unturned

Texas A&M’s Water Conservation and Technology Center has a strategy for identifying and developing all potential water resource options.

Karla Hignite

For parched parts of the country, finding and developing new water sources can seem a costly enterprise—until you calculate the cost of not having adequate supplies to sustain life and livelihoods. (For more about higher education's sustainability efforts related to a safe water supply, see "On the Water Front" in the June 2013 Business Officer.)

In his role as director of Texas A&M's Water Conservation and Technology Center (WCTC), Calvin Finch works with industry, state and federal agencies, municipalities, trade associations, and other research institutions to coordinate regional projects and public-private partnerships focused on the state's water priorities. The center employs a four-strategy focus in its effort to identify and develop all potential water resource options.

  1. Water conservation. WCTC operates a regional water conservation program for San Antonio and surrounding areas that rely on the Edwards Aquifer. This region represents not only the seventh most populated city in the United States—at more than 1.3 million people—but also a huge agricultural area with other downstream interests, notes Finch. Part of the center's outreach includes working directly with smaller communities to assess water needs, develop conservation plans, and identify implementation costs. A history of sporadic rainfall in San Antonio has already compelled its residents to curtail water use. In fact, the city has been hard at work on conservation measures for 20 years, notes Finch. Since the 1980s, San Antonio has expanded by approximately 400,000 residents without increasing its water consumption. Yet much of the state has proceeded with plans for economic growth and population expansion without fully thinking through the associated water demands, says Finch. He hopes to see approaches adopted by San Antonio replicated in communities throughout the state, since the best way to "make" water is to save it.
  2. Water reuse. One of the most readily available sources of greywater comes directly from household washing machines, sinks, and showers. This can be safely captured and reused for landscape purposes, notes Finch. The center is developing retrofit kits for individual residences that it estimates could be produced for about $400 per household. And, if implemented widely, the kits could result in as much as 10 percent replacement of potable water use statewide. "The technology itself is not that demanding. The more difficult challenge is the education component because many people mistakenly consider this greywater source as sewage," notes Finch.
  3. Groundwater desalination. "We have huge amounts of brackish groundwater in central Texas and along our coast. While this source is relatively expensive to treat, it is a less expensive process than seawater desalinization," explains Finch. Currently the center is partnering with the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas State University on a proposal to conduct a feasibility study exploring approaches to make it easier and less costly to process brackish water as a viable potable water source.
  4. Energy development and water use. The center's community outreach includes bringing together all local interests to ensure that stakeholders balance their water needs. This often includes sorting out disputes between industry and independent farmers and ranchers. For instance, most Texans have a positive view of oil and gas development as an economic asset for their town or region, says Finch.

"We have done some work with communities in the Eagle Ford shale in south Texas, and the concern of residents is typically less about the potential risk to water quality related to a process like hydraulic fracturing and more about the levels of water consumed by that process and whether the community will then have enough water to meet other priorities like agriculture," explains Finch. "A good bit of our work includes exploring opportunities to increase water supply or make it more efficient so that all parties can meet their needs."

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.