Blog  /  April 2017  /  Troubled Waters: Water Issues on the Gulf Coast

Blog Post Teaser

Situated along the shoreline of the ninth largest body of water in the world, the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, make up the Gulf Coast. Known for its prominent wetlands, swamps and marshes, the Gulf States are prone to beautiful white beaches (like Siesta Key), hot, humid and sleepy summers in the “Big Easy” and heavy of rainfall and hurricanes. The damp, swampy climates of Louisiana's bayous and the Florida Everglades create an interesting contrast against the long standing droughts in Texas and Alabama. What’s more, this contrast of feast and famine is reflected in the various issues affecting a water stressed region that is surrounded by bodies of water.

Being surrounded by multiple bodies of water has not shielded the Gulf from water scarcity issues. Even though a majority of Texas has survived a devastating series of droughts (most recently in 1999-2002, 2005-2006 and 2010 to 2011), conditions in Northeast Texas continue to worsen, placing counties like Hunt and Fannin in a dire position. In comparison, Alabama’s desolation also continues despite the decreasing severity; over 50% of Alabama is still currently suffering under drought, with counties in the western central area of the state affected by the most extreme conditions. Mississippi and Louisiana have not been immune to drought conditions either even though they are only moderately impacted.

The devastating drought conditions coupled with groundwater pumping continue to strain water reserves across the Gulf.  Strained water systems and consumption concerns have caused tensions to boil over into the U.S. Supreme Court as bordering states contend for water access and usage.  Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Florida’s attempt to regulate Georgia’s water consumption of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. Despite Florida’s unsuccessful attempt to restrict pumping, Texas prepares to “battle” New Mexico in court in an attempt to set restrictions on New Mexican farmers pumping groundwater from the Rio Grande. In the days to come, it can be expected that more questions will arise on water ownership and use.   The outcomes of these “water wars” not only stand to impact the states involved but, will set precedents that will impact the ownership and use of water across the region and the entire country. Put simply, it’s not a question if but a matter of when other states will join the fray to carve out “their” share of water.

As the dilemma with water rights continues to become volatile, likewise, infrastructure across the region continues to become increasingly unstable due to leaky and corroding piping and old waterlines and distribution systems. Aging infrastructure has not only impacted water supply but, it has also created a host of water quality issues, such as lead (as seen in Flint Michigan and across the country) and other contaminants polluting water supplies. In the small West Texas towns of Breckenridge and Stamford, for example, old water lines and failing infrastructures have affected the quality of the towns’ sources of water making it difficult for residents to access clean water. But corroding infrastructure is not limited to Texas alone, contamination concerns and the increased attention on monitoring water quality have come to the forefront throughout the region. To combat water quality concerns, many coastal states are tightening legislation on water quality standards such as Alabama which has made a concerted effort to reduce the levels of E.coli discharged from water and wastewater treatment facilities.  Even though legislation shares an important role in ensuring specific standards are met, much needed infrastructure work must be carried out.

In trying to combat contamination and water waste, utilities and municipalities set their focus on structural changes, allocating money to rehabilitate and rebuild distribution systems. The El Paso Water Utilities and the City of St. Petersburg are just two of the many players seeking to make improvements on outdated water and wastewater systems. Across the Gulf, an extensive amount of bids and projects focus on both preliminary planning, engineering and consulting services for infrastructural improvements and sanitary sewer, stormwater and water systems upgrades. Additional infrastructure projects include replacing parts of treatment facilities such as pump stations and clarifiers and supplying treatment chemicals. To assist The City of St. Petersburg and other municipalities with funding these crucial improvements, players at the federal and state level have provided funding for infrastructure work. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (which has provided funding for a multitude of projects through the Community Development Block Grant program) and the Texas Development Board’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund are just two examples these of funding sources that not only seek to provide financing for major cities but, rural areas as well.

As the welcoming change in seasons bring warmer temperatures and rain showers to the drought-stricken areas in the Gulf, we can expect to continue seeing improvements in drought conditions. Inversely, the focus on water ownership and use may become even more unclear. As a result, we can anticipate an increase in the amount of courtroom litigations, revision in policies and the introduction in new legislation.  These policies will continue changing the landscape, shaping what infrastructure work requires completion in order to meet the tightened water quality standards. With so much activity, the Gulf Coast will certainly be a region worth watching.