Regulatory Impediments to Implementing One Water in Texas
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As more and more people move to Texas, the way cities manage water within an urban environment is changing. Traditionally, cities employ a “one-way use of water” approach, where freshwater from a reservoir or an aquifer is treated, conveyed to customers, used, then treated again, and ultimately discharged to a river. Increasingly, however, cities are recognizing that to develop sustainable and resilient water systems, they must treat all water within an urban environment as a resource and encourage the development of onsite, building-scale reuse systems, where buildings and communities become the water source. Indeed, within the “wastewater” that makes its way to municipal water treatment plants, there are many sources of water that people can use – such as graywater from washing machines and showers and air conditioning condensate. Even actual wastewater, referred to as blackwater, can be reused for numerous purposes. Rainwater and stormwater are additional sources of water that buildings can capture to reduce water supply demands. This holistic, often decentralized, approach to managing water is referred to as One Water.
The majority of laws and regulations that govern water use in the United States and Texas, however, are not based on a One Water framework. Current laws and regulations were adopted under the traditional water management framework, where water management is centralized and to protect public health, regulations require that cities remove wastewater from an urban environment. Although, in general, Texas has an accommodating regulatory environment for water reuse projects and has adopted regulations that allow for reuse of alternative onsite waters, the state has expressed a preference for regional management of water resources. One Water projects are still not the norm. This is, in part, due to the current regulatory framework’s inability to accommodate more innovative water reuse strategies, where the risk to public health is significant or not well understood. For example, federal drinking water regulations are necessary to protect public drinking water supplies, but they create onerous regulatory hurdles for smaller, onsite systems that may seek to use alternative sources, such as rainwater. Additionally, although onsite non-potable reuse of blackwater is a hallmark of the One Water approach, existing regulations in Texas make it extremely difficult for developers to construct onsite blackwater reuse systems. Finally, the lack of regulations that govern water reuse in Texas could actually stymie the development of One Water projects as developers often prefer clear regulatory and permitting paths over case by case decision making by regulators.
To facilitate development of One Water projects in Texas, the state’s regulatory framework must transition to support decentralized strategies. Policymakers need to tailor regulations to each water source and the specific end use as the types of treatment and the risk to public health varies with different source waters and the intended use. The City of Austin’s Water Forward Plan and the City’s efforts to develop an onsite non-potable water reuse ordinance will likely pave the way for similar local efforts as well as highlight the need for the state to develop consistent statewide regulatory guidance.