Sunday, September 24, 2023 Sep 24, 2023
96° F Dallas, TX


By Aimee Larrabee |

We were taken aback when people around the country scrambled to get their hands on one of the Cabbage Patch dolls last Christmas. The department store lines and the black-market price tags gave us a look at what a public scare is like.

Most of us remember more serious scares-situations in which people vied for staples such as sugar, flour and bread during wartime, or, more recently, for gas during the energy crisis. But even those products weren’t basic requirements for sustenance. The scary news is that, according to some local experts, we are facing a shortage of a vital necessity: water.

Next month, SMU will be the gathering place for the nation’s water resource experts. The conference, entitled “Water for the 21st Century: Will It Be There?,” will focus on how we can best meet our agricultural, municipal and industrial water needs in the drier regions of the United States-specifically the Southwest.

Just how bad is the problem? The answer varies a great deal depending upon the source, but most observers agree that a water shortage is one of the most serious problems facing this area of the state. Dr. Michael Collins, conference chairman and professor of engineering at SMU, says that the next 20 years are critical; if the water needs aren’t met, he says, growth could be tremendously stunted.

The shortage in the Southwest starts at the agricultural level, which, according to Collins, necessitates the use of 70 percent of all water in Texas. With the huge population shift to the Sun Belt, municipal water supplies will continue to be depleted, too.

The major source of water in this area is the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge underground lake that runs from northern Texas through Oklahoma and six other states. Many experts warn that parts of the Ogallala will be drained during the next 25 years. Collins warns that some of the lowest levels of the aquifer are in our area.

Other reasons for the shortage include problems that, if caught in time, can be remedied. Fanners currently water a majority of their crops through irrigation, which can waste nearly half the water as a result of evaporation. The most efficient form of irrigation, according to Collins and other experts, is drip irrigation, which directs the water to the root of the plant with almost no evaporation loss.

That brings us to the main reason for the conference: to unite the experts on water conservation with those who can do something about it: scientists and legislators. “There has been a bit of a dichotomy between those who must make the decisions and those studying the techniques,” Collins says. “I see a need for greater interfacing.”

Legislation is a key to solving the shortage, according to Collins-specifically, legislation that will make water more dear. “Water is terribly underpriced, he says. Look at the cost of water vs. the value. We saw [a shortage and a price increase] in petroleum products, and the time has come for this to happen with water. It’s a fact of life; the price will have to go up.” And if the price goes up, the use should go down. Some experts estimate that within 20 years, yearly water bills in Texas could increase by $100 per person-not per household.

Speakers from the Freshwater Foundation in Pennsylvania, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Water Conservation Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Interior, as well as specialists from Arizona, California, Pennsylvania and Minnesota top the list of experts meeting at SMU for the two-and-a-half-day conference. Scores of politicians have been urged to attend, including Texas Agriculture Commissioner James High-tower; William Ruckelshaus, head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Gov. Mark White. The conference will be open to the public.