Friday, May 9, 2014

New Report on Texas Water Planning

(Austin, Texas; MAY 9, 2014)

A report issued today by the non-profit Texas Center for Policy Studies (TCPS) finds that the current water planning process in Texas tends to over-estimate future water demand and under-estimate the potential for making better use of existing supplies.  Richard Lowerre, TCPS Executive Director, said “This report shows that, with more reasonable demand projections and better use of conservation and drought management, the demand/supply gap in 2060 is less than one-half that predicted by the current 2012 State Water Plan issued by the Texas Water Development Board. That is, rather than an 8.3 million acre-feet/year gap between demand and supply in 2060, a more realistic gap is about 3.3 million acre-feet/year.”

The report, Learning from Drought: Next Generation Water Planning for Texas, analyzes the methods used by the state and the 16 regional water planning groups to develop demand and supply projections.  “The region-based Texas water planning process was groundbreaking when it first got off the ground 15 years ago.  But, times and technologies have changed, and it’s appropriate to look at how the planning process can evolve to give us a better sense of real priorities,” said Mary Kelly, a consultant with Parula, LLC and one of the report’s co-authors.  “This is particularly important as the state begins to look at how to spend the new $ 2 billion water infrastructure fund authorized by voters in November 2013,” she added.

The report makes a number of recommendations for the future of water planning in Texas.  For example, it recommends moving away from current “single scenario” forecasts to an approach that looks at a range of future scenarios.  “A multiple scenario approach would allow a much more comprehensive look at the kind of choices we make about how water is used and the expense of building new infrastructure versus more efficiently using existing supplies,” said Joe Trungale, an water resources engineer and co-author of the report.

Other recommendations include:

·         More reasonable assumptions about the need for water for future steam electric generation;

·         Enhanced consideration of drought contingency planning as a supply strategy;

·         More thorough consideration of brackish groundwater desalination as a supply strategy;

·         Gathering and using more accurate data on current water use;

·         Making healthy rivers and bays and vibrant rural economies co-equal with other goals of the water planning process.

“The drought has provided new insights into the vulnerability of communities whose needs have been ignored and into the willingness of Texans to adopt innovative and far-reaching water conservation practices.  Combined with the developments in state water financing, a more prominent role for the Texas Water Development Board and heightened public interest in water, now is the time to examine whether we have a planning process that is up to the task,” added Mr. Lowerre.

The Texas Center for Policy Studies is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, founded in 1983.  The report is available on the TCPS website at

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Kudos to SAWS; Time to Deal with the Day Case

Last week, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) staff announced their recommendation that SAWS no longer pursue any of the three projects that had been proposed for importing large amounts of ground water from rural Texas to San Antonio.  Instead, they recommended that SAWS pursue expanded brackish ground water desalination, in partnership with the City Public Service, San Antonio’s electric utility.  Kudos are due to SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente for choosing a closer-to-home strategy that, along with continued efficiency improvements, will help the City meet its water needs far into the future.  Here is hoping that the SAWS board and the Mayor give full support to this sensible approach.
But, in the press release announcing the decision, SAWS expressed concern about the role of groundwater districts, saying:

 “The highest ranked proposal was unwilling to assume the risk of water being cut off by the groundwater district that regulates the supply,” said Puente of the project proposed by Abengoa Water LLC. “We are also unwilling to ask our ratepayers to absorb the cost of a project with potentially no water.”

The private proposals would have required annual payments of up to $85 million for thirty years, and a rate increase of approximately 9% to 12% in 2019, not including infrastructure integration costs. Groundwater conservation districts have the authority to regulate withdrawals of water from aquifers, often with little notice or process for appeal. SAWS has experienced the curtailment decisions of groundwater districts in the past.

Groundwater law in Texas leaves too much uncertainty and risk for the private and public sectors,” added Puente. “I hope that the proposers and cities across the state will join SAWS in calling for the legislature to change the law so Texans can build projects to meet growing future demand.”

While  the predictability of ground water regulation by districts can always be improved, the root of the problem is the Texas Supreme Court’s 2012 opinion in Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day.  As discussed in this TCPS report, the holding in Day pushes groundwater districts into granting pumping permits to all-comers or risk being dragged into expensive “takings” litigation.  At the same time, however, the districts must also implement ground water management plans that protect aquifer levels.  In cases where ground water is connected with surface streams, districts also legitimately strive to maintain spring flows to the rivers and streams, flows that support surface water uses and fish and wildlife.  As an added complication, many districts enter this decision process without sufficient funding to gather the science necessary to understand how much pumping the aquifer can really sustain over the next several decades. 
The only way districts can manage in this rock-and-a-hard place situation is to maintain an option to cut back all pumpers if ground water use begins to cause the aquifer to drop below management goals.  Some districts do that via shorter-term permits that must be periodically renewed.  Others do it through permit conditions that allow the district to cut back pumping to protect aquifer levels and/or spring flows to achieve management goals.  Understandably, that kind of flexibility presents difficulties for a municipality needing long-term secure supplies or for those looking to finance (and profit from) large ground water export projects. 

Mr. Puente is right when he calls for legislative action, but it’s not really about ground water districts. The more central problem is the state’s long-standing failure to come to grips with balancing private property rights and public interest in the management of groundwater.  The central question that will need to be addressed by the Legislature is:   does the Day case leave the state any options for striking a balance that increases regulatory certainty while providing for effective ground water conservation and management? 

Mary E. Kelly, for the Texas Center for Policy Studies   

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Groundwater Desalination: An Under-Projected Source of Supply?

The challenges and opportunities in brackish groundwater desalination as a source of future water supply in Texas have been receiving considerable attention lately.   With a Joint Interim Committee on Desalination, Senate Natural Resources Committee interim charges that include desalination, and a new Texas Desalination Association, this area will continue to be a hot topic. 

Read our take on how Texas water planning is (or is not) incorporating brackish groundwater desalination into the future supply projections and what is needed to ensure the full potential of this resource is recognized in the current round of planning.