‘Bottom-to-top’ state water plan outlines next half-century
Friday, October 12, 2012 | | 1
- AAS FILE PHOTO The drought left boats high and dry along the Cypress Creek arm of Lake Travis on Aug. 19, 2009.
By Mike Parker
Austin Community Newspapers
The city of Brownwood could soon reuse treated water directly taken from its wastewater system. Coastal cities are weighing the pros and cons of desalination to clean brackish water. In West Texas, planes use flares to “seed” clouds for precipitation.
Today, these are considered radical remedies when water supply runs short. But John Burke, chairman of the Region K water planning group, said Texans could see those cases become more and more prevalent.
“You are going to see more and more people reaching out farther and farther to get that water supply,” he said.
Those remedies become all too apparent during periods of drought. The last statewide drought withered crops, dissipated forests and spurred fires that ravaged Central Texas. The results are economic losses and agricultural woes — all of which the state water plan hopes to curtail.
Senate Bill 1
In 1997, then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock said the state needed a different strategy to address water planning. At the time, the Texas Water Development Board developed water plans internally, resulting in bulky, three-inch thick binders filled with data. But James Kowis, Lower Colorado River Authority’s chief water supply strategist, said the plan did not “grab people.”
Instead, Bullock opted to create a regional planning process involving local stakeholders. Senate Bill 1 laid the framework for that endeavor, with the number “1” sending a message of priority to the Legislature.
“That’s the lieutenant governor’s message to the Senate and the rest of the Legislature that ‘you need to address this,’ ” Kowis said.
The state plan splits the state into 16 regions. Among those is the Lower Colorado River region, or Region K, which consists of 14 counties beginning north in Mills County and continuing southeast to Matagorda Bay. Like other regions, it is represented by a planning group, consisting of 22 members with varying interests. Water utilities, municipalities, counties, industries, businesses and environmental stakeholders are all represented through a member of the group.
Kowis represents river authorities on the group. He said with regional plans created through planning groups, the state water plan offers a bottom-to-top approach to planning. Each project listed in the final plan is available for funding through the TWDB, which can be integral for municipalities looking for ways to increase their water supply.
“It’s a volunteer group that works together and gets grant money to fund the process,” Kowis said in summary.
Supply and demand
Fundamentally, each planning group looks at two things: supply and demand. Supply consists of surface water (lakes and rivers) and ground water (aquifers). For Region K, surface water represents 77 percent of supply, while 11 major and minor aquifers represent 23 percent of supply.
For demand, the planning group looks at six categories: municipal, manufacturing, agricultural, steam electric, mining and livestock. Though agriculture would account for 92 percent of needs through a drought today, municipalities are expected to surpass those needs by 2060, according to the plan.
Demand increases with an ever-growing population. In Region K alone, the TWDB expects a 100-percent increase in population from 2010 to 2060. If that holds true, more than 2.8 million people will be living in the area — and every one of them will need water.
That trend is similar statewide. The state population is expected to increase by 82 percent in the next 50 years, and the 2012 state water plan recommends a total 562 projects to bring an additional 9 million acre-feet of water per year by 2060. Experts estimate the cost of those projects to reach $53 billion, and municipal water providers — from cities to municipal utility districts to counties — are expected to fit more than half that bill.
With that estimate, the state water plan projects a need for 8.3 million acre-feet of additional water supply if a drought occurs similar to the drought of record reached in the 1950s. Not meeting that demand will result in $11.9 billion in income lost per year and a million lost jobs.
Drought as the norm
Water demand is based on the drought of record. In the ’50s, a decade-long drought parched the state, creating a precedent the TWDB and the state water plan still use today as its worst-case scenario. That drought — and one the region is facing today — illustrate what is considered normal for Texas, Kowis said.
“You’ve seen us move from flood to drought,” he said. “You look at our combined storage for our lakes over the years, and you see it very plainly. You move from one extreme to another.”
That leaves planning groups with a different mindset when assessing water supply. And a big part of that mindset is conservation.
More than a third of the Region K plan consists of conservation methods. Kowis said those methods introduce a permanent change to water use. Drought contingencies such as city watering schedules do not fit that category, he said. Water efficient shower heads and plans that permanently decrease the amount of water used by people do count as conservation methods.
But when neither of those methods fulfills the region’s water demand, the
regional plan recommends larger projects like building a new reservoir, which can take more than a decade to complete.
The San Antonio Water System-LCRA project was one of the biggest projects in the 2012 plan. The deal had SAWS receiving water from the lower Colorado River for 80 years. In turn, SAWS would pay for long-term storage projects and conservation programs that would benefit the entire region.
But in April 2009, the SAWS-LCRA project ended due to studies showing the basin did not have enough water supply for the project to work, Kowis said. Now, with that project scratched from the plan, Region K must find a solution toward water supply deficits the project aimed to solve.
The SAWS-LCRA project is just one example of the myriad projects the planning group assesses through discussion, presentations and conferring with constituents. Teresa Lutes, Austin’s water division manager for systems planning, represents bigger municipalities in Region K, and said the planning process is sound.
“It’s a great process, because it’s a continual one, essentially,” she said. “They are to be updated every five years; so when practically you get one done, you get a little bit of a break, and then you start the next one.”
Jennifer Walker of the Sierra Club represents environmental interests in Region K, and said the planning group mostly works toward the same goals.
“I think everybody comes in trying to be open and reasonable toward other people’s ideas,” she said. “I’ve never seen anyone get their ideas shot down.”
For instance, Walker said her efforts to curtail water usage received push back from some contingencies, but by the third round of planning, it received more backing.
“That’s just people getting comfortable with the idea,” she said.
Burke said many of those ideas stem from local plans. Planning group members look at projects that work for particular areas, and “do whatever needs to be done to put deals together.”
“It’s a balancing act to get everybody on board,” he said. “It’s not just a rubber stamp. But if something makes sense, and it’s not hurting flows, and the environmental groups aren’t saying anything, then we approve [it].”
Burke said the group sees more and more radical options being considered as viable options. Water shortages are causing planners to re-think what is necessary in regulations as well. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality prohibits municipalities to send treated effluent into the Highland Lakes, which Burke said is stopping clean water from reaching the region’s largest water source.
“If it keeps getting drier, you’ll see those lakes take effluent water,” he said. “That sewer water is cleaner than the lake, but they don’t like to think of it that way.”
Nearly everyone in the planning group agrees conservation is the most affordable means to meet water demands while serving municipal and environmental concerns.
“Austin is focused on making water last and being good stewards of that resource,” Lutes said. “We work very closely with LCRA and their responsibilities and so forth with water supply management.”
Is it time to worry?
As the state continues to grow in population — and the demand for water supply grows — Kowis said he sees an unfortunate trend of increasing costs for the numerous projects necessary to supply water in Texas. The initial state water plan estimated about $20 billion in costs to meet demand, he said. Today, the projected cost is $50 billion.
“Each cycle, the cost keeps going up,” he said.
Adding the possibility of the state suffering a new drought of record, and the state water plan could call for stricter regulations and more projects to ensure water is available, he said.
But Kowis and others on the planning group said that is why the state water plan is in place: to meet water needs in Texas for a half-century, even under the most stringent environmental conditions.
“We are seeing those mechanisms in place and seeing them getting implemented,” he said. “But Texas is a big state, and some areas are being stressed.”
Walker said Texans should not be worried, but should remain active and knowledgeable about how their water needs are met.
“I do think that everybody should know where their water comes from and be in contact with their water supply,” she said.
Jason Hill, spokesperson for Austin Water Utility, said Austin and other cities are focused on being good stewards of water, and conservation efforts over the past five years have shown there is hope for meeting water needs in the future.
“Our customers retained a responsible, conservative attitude,” he said. “We are seeing the fruits of supporting a water conscious community. We’re going to continue that, and we’re confident our customers will follow suit.”
While the state water plan remains a pivotal and highly studied part of the water planning process, some officials and stakeholders see room for improvement.
The plan relies less on human behavior and more on reservoirs when planning strategies. But Jennifer Walker, who represents environmental interests on the Region K planning group, said proper education and community activism should play a larger role in the plan.
“As water supply gets tighter, we need to be more flexible and think outside the box,” she said. “I think a lot of the water supply in the future is what we already have and learning how to use that water more efficiently.”
Karen Huber, Travis County precinct 3 commissioner, said she has questioned whether the plan truly considers the drought and the continuing population growth the region will face. The plan does not offer funding mechanisms for projects, she said, and does not foster coordination among counties or cities to do region-wide planning.
“We’re continuing to grow, and water use has grown exponentially,” she said. “We’ve been flush with water, no pun intended, for a long time. But that won’t last.”
The state projects a $53 billion price tag for building infrastructure necessary for future water needs. But Bill Bunch of Save Our Springs Alliance said the plan does not include extra costs associated with operating and maintaining that infrastructure. In an editorial published by the Austin American-Statesman earlier this year, Bunch listed those and other major gaps he sees in the plan.
“The plan also says nothing about the Water Board’s own 2004 Water Conservation Task Force recommendation that cities should, at a minimum, reduce water use to below 140 gallons per capita per day,” he wrote.
But Teresa Lutes, Austin’s water division manager for systems planning, said the water plan’s strength is in allowing cities and other entities to decide how to gather resources for their projects.
“The plan is a general, overall framework,” Lutes said. “I don’t think it’s a tit-for-tat kind of thing.”
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