You may have heard that water is the new oil—scarce, precious and locked away in large underground deposits. But those making the comparison are often speculators hoping to get rich by drilling and pumping water to feed our state’s expanding population centers, the way others have enriched themselves by extracting petroleum.
But water is not oil, and conflating the two is shortsighted and irresponsible. For one thing, water is a basic need for all living things. Petroleum is not. There are alternative energies, but there are no water alternatives. And fresh water is finite. Even though three-quarters of our planet consists of water, 97 percent is salty. Two percent of the remaining fresh water is trapped in ice and snow, leaving less than one percent of all the water on Earth—found in lakes, rivers, streams and underground aquifers—to fulfill the needs of every present and future plant, insect and animal, including more than seven billion thirsty humans.
Upstream Threat & The Ripple Effect
The water choices we all make at home have a ripple effect on aquifers and waterways hundreds of miles away. In 2013, the Val Verde Water Company, based in Beeville, announced plans to pipe nearly 50 billion gallons of fresh water annually from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer to subdivisions and cities as far away as San Antonio and San Angelo. Not only is the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer a vital groundwater source for agricultural, industrial and public uses throughout Central Texas, but it supplies more than 75 percent of the Devils River, the state’s most pristine waterway and its wild flora and fauna. The Devils, one of the last undammed rivers in Texas, flows through a remote, semi-arid region that’s home to white-tailed deer, a diversity of songbirds, rare fish and salamander species, mountain lions, mosses, ferns, pecan trees and the last stand of Mexican White Oaks in the United States.
A karst limestone aquifer, the Edwards-Trinity is a porous underground labyrinth. Water flows from springs to streams and back underground through sinkholes. No one really knows how extracting water from private property above ground affects other parts of this complex system. After the Val Verde Co. floated its proposal, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) completed a groundwater-flow model of the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer, which averages 433 feet deep, to simulate the affects of prolonged pumping. How sustainable, the agency wondered, are both current and projected water-use demands? Scientists analyzed three scenarios to simulate a three-decade period, from 2010 to 2040. At current seasonal extraction volumes, groundwater levels are expected to decline up to 15 feet over 30 years.
When current levels are extended year-round, groundwater levels decline up to 27 feet. In the third scenario, in which pumping levels increase gradually over 30 years, groundwater levels decline up to 32 feet, or more than seven percent of the average depth. Who knows what that drop will do to the shallow Devils River? Companies like Val Verde and the Houston-based Electro Purification, which recently began pumping and selling millions of gallons per day from the Trinity Aquifer in Hays County, claim they’re only fulfilling a need—a need driven by rampant residential growth throughout Central Texas. That’s where TreeHouse can help.
Oil and water have one thing in common—they both need to be conserved. If population growth is putting pressure on a water supply already overburdened by years of drought, then reducing household water consumption can check the demand. The average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day or nearly 150,000 gallons annually. There are many ways to reduce water consumption that don’t cost too much or require uncomfortable sacrifice.Low-flow toilets and bathrooms fixtures are nothing new, but they really work! Here at TreeHouse, we offer products that meet and go beyond standard code requirements for maximum flow. New toilets, for instance, cannot exceed 1.6 gallons per flush, but we sell high-efficiency models that drop each flush to a single gallon. Replace an old, 6-gallon-per-flush toilet with one of these, and that family of four will save an average of 100 gallons of water every day or 36,500 gallons per year. Multiply those savings citywide, and water demand falls by millions of gallons per year.
Another popular product we sell is a high-efficiency reverse osmosis filter. As awareness grows about hard-to-remove chemicals and heavy metals in the water, more and more homeowners are opting for these thorough purification systems. Many reverse osmosis systems waste three gallons of water to produce one gallon of clean water. The ones we sell cut that waste by two-thirds, requiring only an extra gallon of water for every pure gallon produced. Nearly a third of domestic water use occurs outside the home. You can slash outdoor use by installing a rooftop rainwater collection system for watering your yard and washing cars. If you have a 1,000-square-foot roof, you’ll collect 600 gallons of water for every inch it rains. Considering that Austin averages 34 inches of rainfall annually, that’s a lot of free water. One or two 250-gallon tanks can often capture enough water to keep your yard and garden irrigated during the dry spells between showers.
Irrigating with rainwater has many benefits. Municipal water often contains chlorine, fluoride and other chemicals that kill the good bacteria that keep soil healthy. Rainwater feeds the good bacteria, and it’s softer and more acidic than groundwater, which helps plants process nutrients in the soil. Healthy soil breeds healthy plants, which require less water and are more drought-resistant. Finally, by capturing and using rainwater, you’re replenishing the groundwater beneath your home rather than letting the rain flow into the storm drains and downriver to the sea.
There are plenty of selfish reasons to practice smart household water management. It’s good for your garden. It saves you money. And it can play a significant role in reducing market pressures to over pump aquifers like the Edwards-Trinity, which feeds the Devils River. Here at TreeHouse, we think the Devils River is worth protecting.