Water for Dummies: DFW Edition

 Water for Dummies: DFW Edition

For the first time in five years, Texas is drought free. At least, it is as this is written. Lakes and reservoirs around the state recouped much of the water they had lost during the dry years, and already signs of complacency about our water situation can be seen. It was enough to make an Enlightened Speakers Series event in Dallas on water a hard sell after all the rain in the spring. The event was in Dallas in late June. With July nearly bone dry, interest in the state’s water outlook revived.

The event featured the three panelists who had made presentations at our earlier Speakers Series in Austin in January: Dean Robbins, the assistant general manager of the Texas Water Conservation Association (TWCA); Russell Johnson, an Austin attorney at McGinnis Lochridge whose practice deals solely with water issues; and Carlos Rubinstein, a member of the Texas Water Development Board.

Despite the relief from our several years’ drought, the panelists cautioned against letting our guard down. “Don’t get too comfortable,” Robbins said. “Our reservoir storage to the east of I-35 is in good shape, but west is still not where it needs to be.” He said we stopped building reservoirs around 1980, but with the state’s big population increase, per capita storage of water has decreased over time.

“People are very possessive of their water,” said Russ Johnson. “East Texas believes their water belongs to them, and it is not available to the rest of the state. I travel to West Texas and the first thing they say is, ‘You better not be here for my water.’”

Russ Johnson practices water law at McGinnis Lochridge.
Russ Johnson practices water law at McGinnis Lochridge.

The Metroplex has a major water issue. “The Metroplex thinks its water problems were solved decades ago,” Johnson said. There is no water resource near by the Metroplex that can be easily developed, he said.

That means the Metroplex will have to get water from places where people don’t want to give it up. Robbins described the disputes as “water wars.” Oklahoma is resisting Texas’ efforts to get some of their water. The Marvin Nichols Reservoir project in Northwest Texas that would supply water to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area is on the drawing board, but Robbins said people in that area are not at all happy about the prospect, and it’s as controversial a plan as anything in the state right now. Rate disputes are emerging in East Texas, and there are issues involving the Endangered Species Act and moving water around the state.

Robbins said that as our surface water supplies dwindled during the drought, groundwater – which makes up about 60 percent of our water supply — was looked at more and more for municipal use. However, most groundwater is still used for agricultural irrigation. But unlike surface water, groundwater is not owned by the state, it’s owned by the landowner. But it is regulated by groundwater conservation districts – more than 100 across the state. Therein lies a problem.

“Virtually every groundwater conservation district believes — although they won’t say this — it is their function to protect that resource for use in the local area,” Johnson said. That creates a regulatory barrier to the transfer of water statewide. “We have to look hard at legislation on how to facilitate the movement of water,” Johnson said.

Dean Robbins is General Manager of TWCA.
Dean Robbins is General Manager of TWCA.

For water planning purposes, Texas has been broken into regions. The Metroplex is Region C. That’s 26 percent of the state’s population, Rubinstein said. “You are going to be short, if we do nothing in the region,” he added. That shortage will amount to 1.5 million acre feet of water. By 2060, the population in the region will increase by 96 percent, to 13 million. “When it comes to an urban area, you beat everyone else in the state, with demand for water based on population growth,” Rubinstein said. The only other region in Texas with greater water demands than the Metroplex needs water for agriculture, not people.

“Let’s say we sit idly by and do nothing,” Rubinstein continued. “By 2060, not only will you be short by 1.5 million acre feet of water, your area’s loss of income by failure to act is $2.8 billion dollars and your

Carlos Rubinstein of the Texas Water Development Board.
Carlos Rubinstein of the Texas Water Development Board.

loss in tax revenue is $3.1 billion, and you will have 547,000 fewer jobs.”

Johnson repeated a favorite saying of his: “Texas is not running out of water, we are running out of developed or inexpensive water.” He said we have pipelines crisscrossing the state for oil and gas, and railroads and highways to transport goods and services, but we do no have an infrastructure for delivering water across the state. “From a business perspective,” he said, “you’ll see the price of water increase substantially over the next 10-20 years to move that water to where it needs to be.”

What about turning to methods like desalination to convert seawater from the Gulf into drinkable water? That all comes down to price, Rubinstein said. The cost of desalinating water from the sea is about $2,000 per 1,000 gallons. The cost to build a reservoir is about $1,200. Brackish groundwater is $800-$1,200, with freshwater around $400. “Most folks will go for the cheapest cost,” Rubinstein said.

But he added that he would like to see desalination projects along the coast. “Whatever you do to relieve demand along the coast relieves pressure all the way up the basin,” he said. Johnson pointed out that Gulf water is at sea level, and would need to travel uphill to move inland. “Water is extremely heavy, and therefore expensive to move,” he said.

Reuse of water is another possibility, such as the “toilet to tap” system in use in Wichita Falls. But that has its own hidden disadvantages, too. “Imagine if you did that in DFW and recycled and reused the water you are now putting into the Trinity River,” Johnson said. “Houston would dry up and blow away. A lot of folks depend on those return flows downstream.” He said it’s important to balance needs of different parts of the state.

Rubinstein said Texas has a history of developing its water policy in response to droughts, going back to the middle of the 19th century. But it wasn’t until 1918 that the Legislature was able to create conservation and reclamation districts that could build dams and delivery systems. The river authorities were created in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Dust Bowl of 1934 eventually led to the creation of groundwater conservation districts. The big drought of the 1950s brought about the creation of the Texas Water Development Board, and led to a fivefold increase in groundwater pumping, primarily for agriculture. Also in the 1950s, 23 major reservoirs were built, followed by another 34 in the ‘60s. The severe drought year of 2011 led to the establishment of the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas – the SWIFT fund.

The SWIFT fund is financed by $2 billion that was transferred from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, and is intended to move forward projects in the state water plan. In late July, the Water Development Board, which manages the SWIFT fund, approved $4 billion to finance 32 water-related projects across the state. $1 billion will be spent over the next year, and another $3 billion over the next decade. Twenty percent of the money must be spent on water conservation projects, a number which the current water board chairman says should be reached.

Among the projects is construction of a new reservoir, the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir, that will serve the North Texas Municipal Water District. The district includes Collin, Hunt, Rockwall, Dallas, Kaufman, Ellis, Rains, Fannin, and Denton counties, and the reservoir will offset projected water supply shortages in the district. The SWIFT fund will provide $82 million to finance the project.

What it boils down to is, as Rubinstein said, “Don’t let the rain fool you.” As he looked at the funding at reduced interest rates for water projects, he said Texas has a right to brag. “Name me another state that does 50 year water planning at the local level,” he said, “that revisits the plan every five years to incorporate changes, and has a funding structure to advance those strategies. Nobody else does.”

Thank you to our Enlightened Speaker Series sponsors:

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