With another drought year hovering over the Southwest, Texas A&M University has unveiled a master plan that its landscape architecture students presented last spring to the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSG). The plan offers suggestions for converting LSG’s 4.9-acre Conroe headquarters into an educational showcase on the latest groundwater conservation techniques.
Since before humans inhabited the region, Texas and the Southwest have been prone to decade-long droughts that have ebbed and flowed with long-term global climate changes and short-term weather cycles, such as El Niño and La Niña. The past ten years have fit in with that trend, with 2011 topping the chart as the driest single year in Texas’ recorded history. Now, some scientists believe that anthropogenic climate change could be plunging the region into a mega-drought as bad or worse than the worst-known dry spell to parch the region: the drought of 1950 to 1957.
The 1950s drought caused, in adjusted dollars, $22 billion in agricultural losses. The disaster spurred the drafting of contingency plans, the building of reservoirs, and the development of new sources of groundwater. While the water infrastructure put in place in that time—such as the construction of 69 dams between 1950 and 1970, including the Longhorn Dam on the Colorado River that formed Ladybird Lake in Austin—took the bite off of subsequent dry periods, population growth in the state is threatening to overwhelm those resources. A 2011 Texas Water Development Board report projected a 10 percent drop in statewide water supply between 2010 and 2060, while water demand is expected to rise by 22 percent due to the increase in inhabitants. Policymakers and agencies across the state and region are busy now finding ways to ensure that there will be enough fresh water for the future.
In Montgomery County, north of Houston, that means groundwater. A 2012 Texas A&M urban planning study noted that the county’s water supply comes almost exclusively from freshwater aquifers that are being depleted faster than they can recharge. The LSG, which expects the county’s population to double by 2040, is on a mission to combat this deficit pumping. It aims to achieve a 30-percent reduction in 2009 groundwater use levels by 2016. While in part this reduction will be achieved by the development of alternative sources, such as 20,100-acre Lake Conroe, the plan put forth by Texas A&M landscape architecture students offers many methods that can help the built environment to become a contributor to recharging groundwater, rather than detriment.
The plan for the LSG’s headquarters includes a detention pond that will hold excess water and allow it to filter slowly back into the ground, permeable paving in the parking lot, and roof and other rain collection systems that direct storm water into cisterns. It also proposes slightly elevated walkways and unpaved paths instead of concrete sidewalks, a xeriscape garden to exhibit the potential beauty of a water-sipping green patch, green-roofed informational kiosks, a high-tunnel greenhouse, and an air conditioning condensation collection system, among other more mundane measures such as residential rain barrels.
The LSG met in June and discussed the formation of committees to consider the implementation of some or all of the recommendations in the student master plan. Whether or not the agency, which is funded by a portion of citizen’s water bills, will find the money to pay for the upgrades, the plan presents measures that could be integrated into the built environment at large—both in existing and new projects. With the Southwest on the verge of a potential water crisis, these conservation techniques offer one key to a sustainable future.