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Understanding a Water, Energy, and Food Hotspot in San Antonio, Texas

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Blog Series

Delivering water, energy and food for all in a sustainable and equitable way is a major challenge faced by society. The water-energy-food nexus concept aims to address this by better understanding how interactions between water, energy and food are shaped by environmental, economic, social and political changes and how the synergies and trade-offs among them can be better planned and managed. The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network is a network of people and organisations which fosters transdisciplinary research and communicates the importance of holistic system approaches across water, energy and food systems. Acknowledging that the nexus concept is often described as overly academic and not practical on the ground, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network is organising this blog series to illustrate the role of the nexus concept in addressing local and national challenges of sustainable and equitable access to resources. Understanding the perceptions and entry points with which local and national stakeholders can engage with the nexus concept is key to further implementing nexus approaches, especially in the Global South.

Learn more about the Future Earth Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network. 

Understanding a Water, Energy, and Food Hotspot in San Antonio, Texas


By Bassel Daher


The nexus challenge


San Antonio, Texas, is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. The region surrounding the city includes major areas of irrigated cotton, citrus and nut trees, and other agricultural crops. The region lies over the Eagle Ford shale play and is increasingly becoming home to oil and natural gas production, as hydraulic fracturing technology becomes more prevalent. The San Antonio region thus represents a hotspot whose stakeholders across sectors compete for its limited water, land, and financial resources.

To effectively address future resource challenges and allow the city and region to grow sustainably, decision makers across sectors need to be aware of the interdependence between their decisions. The decision makers also need to be able to evaluate which possible interventions might reduce pressures on the interconnected resources. These interventions could be technological (e.g. investing in new water treatment technology), policy (e.g. incentives to grow crops that require less irrigation), or social (e.g. shifting consumption behaviors).

The nexus platform provides a mechanism to quantify the trade-offs associated with possible pathways forward. Not only does nexus thinking improve how each sector understands the relevant interlinkages and trade-offs, but it also promotes  dialogue among the stakeholders. Doing so would allow stakeholders to make decisions to allocate and manage their water, energy and food resources in a way that reduces competition across different sectors.

Understanding the physical resource challenges

Groundwater wells belonging to the growing municipal, agricultural, and energy sectors compete for the same water aquifers, as illustrated by the figure below. The green dots represent groundwater wells for agricultural use, the red for oil and gas production, and the blue for municipal uses. Understanding and reducing competition between the water, energy and food sectors over resources in the San Antonio region, through holistic, localized, transdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approaches is necessary if the region is to grow sustainably. Understanding the interconnections (i.e. the nexus) between these resource systems can help reduce the competing demands, and lower both the costs and the risks associated. Achieving such an understanding demands more than the knowledge of the resources these sectors compete over – it requires cross sectoral communication and cooperation.

Stakeholder engagement

An interdisciplinary team of Texas A&M scientists, educators, and graduate students are looking into how different scenarios for using resources are likely to influence the food, water and energy sectors in the long-term in San Antonio. Once developed, the team wants to share these scenarios with the stakeholders to promote a dialogue across different sectors. In January 2018, a Stakeholder Information and Engagement Workshop was held, at which the stakeholders were presented with the preliminary outcomes of the work. The stakeholders, which included representatives with diverse technical, academic, research, governmental, and business backgrounds and working in the water, energy, and food sectors, also discussed why there is a low level of communication between them. The pre and post workshop surveys indicated that although low levels of communication exist between water, energy, and food organizations, increasing the level of communication between the stakeholders who are competing for the same limited resources (i.e. water, land, energy, and financial) could contribute to reducing that competition once barriers are addressed.

When asked to give their opinion on existing barriers to communication, the stakeholders highlighted several challenges including:

  1. Financial: who will pay for the time and effort involved in pursuing increased communication?
  2. Uniformity of Language (e.g. units, abbreviations, syntax and context of problems and solutions)
  3. Planning Horizons differ for water, energy, and food, ranging from 10 to 50 years, which causes ideological differences
  4. Perceived conflicts and accountability: priorities and goals differ across sectors and organizations
  5. Competition between local, regional, global organizations and across industries leads to issues of confidentiality and restricted data
  6. Self-interest versus collective goals
  7. Legal and procedural barriers

A Special Issue of the Journal of the Science of the Total Environment (STOTEN) (in press) details this effort to encourage stakeholders from different sectors to engage on issues related to resource use and management. It also documents the process of creating an interdisciplinary team to understand different aspects of the resource hotspot, and engaging with the stakeholders, towards contributing to more inclusive, scientifically-informed decisions. We hope that the lessons learned from this activity in San Antonio will support better understanding of other hotspots, both regionally and globally, and allow us to better address them in the future.

For more information:

Texas A&M University
Water-Energy-Food Nexus Initiative                               

Scientists and educators committed to finding sustainable solutions to the interconnected resource grand challenges comprise multidisciplinary teams that share expertise, skill, and scientific abilities to produce analytics grounded in state-of-the-art science and provide a platform to facilitate inclusive stakeholder dialogue at local, regional and global levels.

Water-Energy-Food Nexus Research Group                     

Related References:

  1. Aldaco-Manner, L., Mohtar, R., Portney, K. (2018). Analysis of four governance factors on efforts of water governing agencies to increase water reuse in the San Antonio Region. Science of the Total Environment, Doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.07.366
  2. Daher, B., Lee, S-H., Kaushik, V., Blake, J., Askariyeh, M.H., Shafiezadeh, H., Zamaripa, S., Mohtar, R.H. (2018). Toward bridging the water gap in Texas: a water-energy-food nexus approach. J. Science of the Total Environment. Elsevier. Doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.07.398
  3. Daher, B., Hanibal, B. Portney, K., Mohtar, R.H. (In Review). Toward creating an environment of cooperation between water, energy and food stakeholders in San Antonio.. Science of the Total Environment. Elsevier.
  4. Mohtar, R.H., Shafiezadeh, H., Blake, J., Daher, B. (2018). Economic, Social, and Environmental Evaluation of Energy Development in the Eagle Ford Shale Play. Science of the Total Environment. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.07.202  
  5. Rosen, Rudolph A., Daher, B., Mohtar, R.H. (2018). Water-Energy-Food Nexus Stakeholder Information Sharing and Engagement Workshop. The Texas A&M University System, College Station, TX. (ISBN-13: 978-0-9986645-3-8)