Experts at a conference addressing water and energy in Texas collectively agreed the state’s water needs will grow exponentially over the next decade, fueled by a “business-friendly” environment attracting more people to the Lone Star state.

But unsolved is how to fund the proposed $53.1 billion state water plan going before the Texas Legislature in January. This issue, along with education, will be on the forefront of issues debated among lawmakers in Austin, according to conference speakers.

“People want water and water security, but they don’t want to pay for it,” Dr. Robert Mace, Texas Water Development Board deputy executive administrator, told conference attendees.

The conference, “Growing Texas: Water and Energy in Texas,” held at the College Station Hilton and Conference Center, featured experts from several Texas A&M University System agencies, including Texas A&M AgriLife Research, and university faculty in the areas of agriculture and engineering.

Dr. Mark Hussey, vice chancellor and dean for agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M University, told attendees that water and energy are part of “grand challenges many individuals are talking about across the country and the world.”

A historic drought in 2011 caused $7.6 billion in Texas agriculture losses and stressed water supply systems statewide. Parts of Texas are still under drought and last year’s parched conditions statewide “keep water planners up at night,” Mace said.

Mace said Texas’ projected population growth will lead to a shortfall of 8.3 million acre-feet of water by 2016.

“All of these folks will want a glass of water,” he said.

Potential funding sources for the state’s overall water plan could come in the form of a tax, water usage fees, sales of state bonds or other funding methods. State Rep. James Keffer, Texas House of Representatives energy resources committee chair, told attendees conservatives will “not look ahead to the future” as the issue is debated and that other politics will weigh in on the state’s water issues.

Nevertheless, Keffer said education and water are two top priorities among Texas legislators in the upcoming legislative session.

Meanwhile, efficient technologies, such as those in agricultural irrigation in the High Plains, will help temper demand, but won’t be the sole solution to water efficiency.

Dr. Ari Michelsen, resident director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at El Paso, said agriculture is a big player in water use to produce crops, livestock and other commodities.

The value of water to farmers to grow crops varies by commodity, he said, but ranges from $15 per acre-foot to $70 per acre-foot. Those prices vary as the value of crop prices and inflation fluctuate from year to year. Municipalities and others looking for new sources of water could turn to farmers and agriculture as a whole in the future to buy water and transfer into industrial or municipal use, he said.

On an economic scale, Michelsen said the cheapest and cleanest source of water is groundwater. Surface water costs range from 50 cents to $1 per 1,000 gallons. Desalinated water costs are approximately $1.60 per 1,000 gallons.

Michelsen said scientists with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialists continue to look for more innovative efficiencies in water use as ongoing work is done in breeding new varieties and evaluating new irrigation technology.

While agriculture has identified several efficiencies in irrigation, Mace said research funding is needed in water conservation to close the gap in municipal residential use and to develop innovative water filtering technologies. This will help temper the length of time it takes to approve and build a new reservoir in Texas – 25 years or longer, he said.

Hussey said the College Station conference served as a hub for academic, industry, municipal utility and government officials to “come together as there is an interface between water and energy.”

Conference sponsors were the Texas A&M Energy Institute and the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. Corporate sponsors were ConocoPhillips, Texas A&M University System and Choice Partners.