Much To Do About Water: Part 1

It was the 2014 Water Summit, an Austin gathering of Texas big thinkers sponsored every other year by the The Academy of Medicine Engineering and Science of Texas.  I headed off to attend, this time avoiding the parking fees and traffic blocks by riding the really sleek 3 year old metrorail system in from 10 miles west of Georgetown for a very reasonable $5.50/day.

The day long meeting considered on a local level how to address the expected 50% doubling in population growth over the next 50 years, and given 2011 (the worst drought in Texas recorded history) and the overall past driest 43 months, how a city like Dallas with its 238 gallon per day per person water habit could cope.  Not too sure about a lot of the numbers that were thrown around, but the discussion seemed quantitative in any case, although purposefully short of global context.

The meeting was attended by engineers (50%), policy makers (50%), a few lawyers, press and others.  I ended up having a really nice lunch with the one of the big 3 public universities’ Vice Presidents of Research, a Texas congressional aide, and a really smart researcher for an environmental design and impact company.  We talked about some new research in organ biopsy and regeneration – testing liver cells for effective chemotherapy ex vivo, and regenerating liver lobes for transplantation using 3d templates (a little curious about how the irrigation and plumbing comes together with the organ regeneration, and fascinated that a liver would not need any information from the rest of a person’s body to grow), whether Texas redistricting plans considered water protection, and the social and economic factors that drive water consumption – whether money, industrialization and development always had to correlate with higher water consumption (why and how it might not).

Over the course of the day, several panels were held.

Panel:  Economics of Water

One economist presented a talk demonstrating an inelastic market driven response to water pricing (a 10% increase in price reduces consumption by 4-5%).  There was some discussion about the privatization of water resources (as has been done in Bolivia for example), and another panelist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas referred to a potential “tragedy of the commons” in this scenario.

Panel: Agricultural Water Use

Although there is a strong agricultural foundation for Texas academics (leading possibly for example to the division of bioengineering from medical sciences in these universities), one panelist observed that the local farmer does not go to the academic for advice about farming, he/she usually goes to the most successful local farmer who has tried something new, and rather conservatively decides how to change his or her farm.   Tables were presented delineating the water needs of various crops (some useful online refs).  One panelist had apparently developed an alfalfa grass that seemingly reduced the water needs of farming cattle to less than that of cotton (this is in contrast to the commonly argued heavy water use of producing beef).  Talking to someone who grew up on a farm, they seem to think that the water usage is about the same, but the panelist’s numbers may not have reflected actually needing to water the cattle.

Most farmers tend to overwater their crops, and several different monitoring technologies were presented to correct this.  Also, a different model was presented for calculating daily water use to correct for stress factors on the crop (disease, weeds, insects…).  Although the new model did not have mathematically separable parameters from the old one with a simple fitting of the data (and therefore its improvement to me was not obvious), there are perhaps independent ways of estimating the parameters so that they correspond to physically relevant observables.  Still, the new model looked a little to my admittedly naive eyes like a glorified fudge factor – one that Farmer Joe would have to come up with independently of Farmer Stan or Farmer Mary.   Ok.  Maybe nothing that dramatic…it could be that the global scaling factor is separated into local scaling factors, resulting in an improved fit.  It’s a pretty common modeling strategy.

Improvements in selective breeding, drought tolerance, and disease resistance were discussed in the context of water use, but also how to improve utilization of available acreage, maximizing surface water irrigation efficiency.  The total irrigation needs of the state are predicted to decline (somewhat simplistically linearly and rather suspiciously directly correlated with an incline in municipal water needs) as the population transfers from rural to urban.  The population increase however will have to be fed, and this food will require water.

Panel: Water for Ecological Needs

This panel was rather poetically reduced to a single speaker in the context of the overall meeting.

Panel: Clean Water Regeneration

The tragedy here is that clean water will decline.  Nature has its ways of purifying water, but as less nature is available and more drilling disrupts the water table, natural percolation, and filtering through trees and organisms will also decline.  Only by sitting on some very dysfunctional slope of the water use curve, does one cut down natural reservoirs of trees to build canals that will irrigate crop land and expect to get more water.  It currently costs about 25 times as much to buy recycled water as to buy new water.

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