think+water: Eutrophication, subsidence, bi-national groundwater and landscaping in a warmer climate

Texas is big, hairy, and fascinating, especially when it comes to water. With 38 public universities and 35 private colleges and universities in the state and many more across the country (and the world) interested in Texas, there’s a great deal of academic scholarship focused on water in the Lone Star State. This new column is where I provide brief summaries and hat tips to several recent academic publications on water in Texas.

I will lean toward papers of practical and policy interest, but my eyes will wander toward whatever they wander towards. If you’ve published something that you think I’d be interested in, please send it my way. No guarantees that I will get to it, but I will appreciate you sharing your work with me.

One of the bummers of academic work is that much of it is behind paywalls, a constant frustration when I worked at the state (on my first day at Texas State University, I dove into the from-my-desk academic journal search functions: “This alone is worth the price of admission,” I yelped to Andy Sansom). If the article is available via the interwebs, I will link to it via the journal title in the list of references at the bottom. If the article is not freely available, I will provide a link to the paywall but also include contact information for the corresponding author so you can ask for a reprint of the article if you are so moved.

Let’s start thinking about water!

Bugica and others (2020), all from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi with two from the Harte Research Center for Gulf of Mexico Studies, published a paper titled “Water quality trends in Texas estuaries” in Marine Pollution Bulletin. This state-wide assessment found symptoms of eutrophication (too many nutrients leading to too little oxygen) in Galveston and Oso bays (probably due to urbanization) as well as in Baffin Bay and the Upper Laguna Madre (probably due to agriculture). They were surprised at the lack of eutrophication in the Nueces-Corpus Christi Bay and thought that was due to decreased freshwater inflows (lower inflows = lower nutrients). They also noted a decrease in pH in the state’s estuaries due to lower amounts of carbonate minerals carried downstream.

Corpus Christi Bay (right), Nueces Bay (top), and Oso Bay (bottom). Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Heading upstream in a serendipitously complementary manner to the previous paper, Kuwayama and others (2020) from Resources for the Future and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin published a paper titled “Trends in nutrient-related pollution as a source of potential water quality damages: A case study of Texas, USA” in Science of the Total Environment. Using more than two million measurements, they looked at long-term (~50 years) trends in water quality (total nitrogen, total phosphorus, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll a) and found that nutrient pollution may be a growing statewide problem. They found that water-quality improved rapidly from the 1970s to the 1990s but has since plateaued and may trend toward growing degradation. Most remaining water bodies in Texas failing to meet human use requirements do so because of low dissolved oxygen levels and high total suspended solids.

Petersen and others (2020), a collection of folks from the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, Allen Boone Humphries & Robinson LLP, North Harris County Regional Water Authority and Northeastern University, published “Groundwater Regulation and the Development of Alternative Source Waters to Prevent Subsidence, Houston Region, Texas, USA” in the Proceedings of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences. This paper provides an overview of the history and activities of the Subsidence District written by the insiders (the general manager, Mike Turco, is a co-author). The story of the subsidence district is one of the few (if not the only?) in Texas where regulators substantially reduced groundwater use to a sustainable level to achieve a policy goal.

Speaking of groundwater, Sanchez and Eckstein (2020), both of the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University, published “Groundwater Management in the Borderlands of Mexico and Texas: The Beauty of the Unknown, the Negligence of the Present, and the Way Forward” in Water Resources Research. This paper documents the discussions and concerns about cross-boundary groundwater management issues between Texas and Mexico and show that stakeholders appear to a support binational groundwater agreement, but only if it’s local or regional in scope. Interestingly, groundwater quality was more of a concern with stakeholders than water quantity.

Rio Grande River

Smith and Chang (2020), both of Georgetown University, published “Utilizing Recent Climate Data in Eastern Texas to Calculate Trends in Measures of Aridity and Estimate Changes in Watering Demand for Landscape Preservation” in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. For these out-of-state folks, “Eastern Texas” means the eastern half of the state stretching as far west as Wichita Falls and San Antonio. They found that, due to rising temperatures, the eastern half of Texas is experiencing higher evapotranspiration rates and thus higher water demands for irrigated landscapes such as lawns since the 1970s. For example, they note that a homeowner in Dallas is now experiencing lawn watering demands of someone who lived and watered in Brownsville 44 years ago. Oddly, the authors don’t report percent increases or assess any geographic patterns in the 14 sites they investigated, but the largest increase (~20 percent) was in Brownsville while the Angelina County Airport showed no change. Smith and Chang correctly note that landscape irrigation requirements also depend on local factors such as soils. The paper demonstrates that water conservationists are not only struggling against cultural norms of water use but also increasing demands for water.

References for the reviewed works:

Bugicaa, K., Sterba-Boatwright, B., and Wetza, M.S., 2020, Water quality trends in Texas estuaries: Marine Pollution Bulletin, v. 152, 8 p.

Petersen and others (2020), Groundwater Regulation and the Development of Alternative Source Waters to Prevent Subsidence, Houston Region, Texas, USA: Proceedings of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences, v 382, p 797-801.

Sanchez, R., and Eckstein, G., 2020, Groundwater Management in the Borderlands of Mexico and Texas: The Beauty of the Unknown, the Negligence of the Present, and the Way Forward: Water Resources Research, v 56, 20 p.

Smith, R.K., and Chang, D.-C., 2020, Utilizing Recent Climate Data in Eastern Texas to Calculate Trends in Measures of Aridity and Estimate Changes in Watering Demand for Landscape Preservation: Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, v 59, p143-152.

Kuwayama, Y., Olmstead, S.M., Wietelman, D.C., and Zheng, J., 2020, Trends in nutrient-related pollution as a source of potential water quality damages: A case study of Texas, USA: Science of the Total Environment, v 724, 15 p, contact: sheila.olmstead@austin.utexas.edu

Author

Robert Mace

Robert Mace

Executive Director & Chief Water Policy Officer at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

Robert Mace is the Executive Director and the Chief Water Policy Officer at The Meadows Center. He is also Professor of Practice in the Department of Geography at Texas State University. Robert has over 30 years of experience in hydrology, hydrogeology, stakeholder processes, and water policy, mostly in Texas.

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