In Texas, a Model For Sharing Open Water Data

41When drought-prone Texas goes dry, the whole world feels it. That, at least, is one takeaway from a New York Times article describing the economic impact of the worst drought in the state’s history on the world cotton market. In total, the 2011 drought cost local agriculture, the cattle industry, and the tourism industry billions of dollars. Although a five-year-long drought came to an end last year and Texas is enjoying the respite, water issues in the state aren’t going anywhere, especially if, as predicted, the state’s population doubles by 2050.

Knowing Texas would have to make some to make some tough decisions about water policy in the coming years, the local chapter of The Nature Conservancy identified a pressing need for good, free, easily-accessible water data, and decided to fill it. Last month they launched a mapping application that incorporates approximately 50 datasets from nearly a dozen different organizations and government agencies. It gives the most complete picture of Texas water available to the public to date.

A project years in the making, the Texas Water Explorer is structured around six factors that impact the state’s water resources—water quantity, water quality, ecosystem health, economic productivity, water governance, and water conservation—and has 24 indicators, like water use by sector or urban water use efficiency, with more slated to come as the Explorer grows. Conservancy employees told Civicist they hope that the Explorer will be a model for similar projects in other states.

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It was a well-timed release, because Texas’s 2017 State Water Plan (a 50-year plan that is revisited and renewed every five years) is open to public comment until April 25, so interested parties have time to check the Explorer for context before weighing in.

“One of the things that you often hear said in Texas,” Laura Huffman, director of The Nature Conservancy Texas, told Civicist, “is that if everybody simultaneously exercised their legal right to pump water out of the rivers and streams in Texas, we’d drain most of them.”

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Texas groundwater is governed by what is sometimes called the “law of the biggest pump”: landowners own the groundwater beneath their property, so they can pump as much groundwater on their property as they like, even if it means drying their neighbor’s well. Individuals, companies, or organizations wanting to use surface water—water from rivers or streams, for example—must apply to a state agencies for a water right, but as Huffman pointed out, if everyone takes what is legally theirs, there wouldn’t be any left.

“If you can drill a well and suck the water out it’s yours, legally, and that makes sustainable water planning very difficult,” says Ryan Smith, an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy Texas who led the Texas Water Explorer project. “There’s an ongoing effort on the part of legislators to try to figure out, how do we work within this thing called rule of capture, but still be able to put enough regulation on it to make it sustainable. So there could very well be some major effort on that in the next session or two.”

45Huffman and Smith hope the Texas Water Explorer will be used to make more informed decisions around water issues going forward. That is one reason, Huffman told Civicist, that the Explorer doesn’t include any kind of editorial analysis. An about page for the tool states, “This website summarizes and maps important information to help you understand Texas water without asserting any causal links to Texas’ freshwater challenges.”

“I’ll give you an example of why,” Huffman said, explaining the Conservancy’s reasoning behind this. “If you look at water conservation numbers—if there is an area that’s using 150 gallons per person or per capita, is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? That’s open for interpretation. We didn’t want to come up with universal interpretations for what that data meant, because we want it to be used for decision-makers.”

“If we had come up with a set of 15 conclusions about what the database meant,” she continued, “then we concluded that it might get less attention from decision makers, because conclusions had already been reached, and then we’d be arguing over whether they were the correct conclusions.”

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Without that bit of guidance, however—“oh see look here now this is interesting and important”—the Texas Water Explorer is frankly overwhelming for a Texas-water amateur, in spite of several videos the Conservancy has produced explaining how to use the Explorer.

However, Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy project Environment Texas, assures Civicist that the Texas Water Explorer is an important resource for activists working on water issues in the state.

“Even as experienced advocates we wouldn’t have known to find or where to look for some of these datasets,” Metzger said.

Finding who owned the needed information and where it was stored and how to get it was the project’s first task. Contributing organizations include state agencies, like the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Comptroller of Public Accounts; universities, including Texas A&M and Michigan State; and federal agencies like the U.S. Geological survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Even though there might have been ways for the public to get to some of this data—through public records or whatever—not all of it even sat on public databases,” Laura Huffman, director of The Nature Conservancy Texas, told Civicist. “The practical answer is no, you could not have looked at this information before. It just would have taken too much effort.”

Metzger said he was glad to see that water efficiency in electricity generation was one of the indicators, although he added that it would be nice if renewable energy companies were also included, to make it easier to advocate for clean energy.

Ryan Smith told Civicist that existing datasets in the Explorer will be updated when new information becomes available, and that they have plans to add additional indicators, including native fish surveys (Smith originally specialized in fish biology). He also said that some people have already reached out through email with suggestions for datasets to add.

Since the Explorer is meant to grow over time, I asked Metzger what data he would like to see added in the future. “TRI data on toxic releases to water, sewage spills, and proposed projects in the State Water Plan,” he replied.

The Texas Water Explorer was funded by several foundations, including the Lennox Foundation, The Meadows Foundation, and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation (George Mitchell was known as the father of fracking). A number of agencies, universities, and NGOs were a part of the advisory council, including the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter, the Southwest Research Institute, the Texas Water Foundation, and the Texas Water Resources Institute.

The Nature Conservancy already has a project in Louisiana and Mississippi called the Freshwater Network, which has similar goals to the Texas Water Explorer, but they’d like to see the Explorer model take off in other states as well. After four years of drought and counting, California would seem a ripe prospect for such an open data project. The state has already imposed mandatory water restrictions, but more information is never amiss, especially when the brunt of the restrictions fall on the less affluent. The drought has inspired some drought-specific visualizations, but nothing approaching the breadth and depth of the Texas Water Explorer.