Selected tag(s): Water Planning

Big Step Forward in Protecting the Edwards Aquifer

This post was written by Dianne Wassenich, Executive Director of the San Marcos River Foundation

Four years ago, a group of very diverse (and often at odds) group of stakeholders started meeting in a seemingly impossible effort to solve the problem of the Edwards Aquifer and ensure water for all its users.  Last week marked a historic agreement in that effort.   Through an almost unanimous vote, the group agreed on a Recovery Implementation Program (RIP), which will protect the flowing Comal and San Marcos springs and the threatened and endangered species who live there while still providing water for its users.

This agreement comes after decades of conflict in this central Texas region about who could pump the aquifer, how much, and when.  The consensus-based RIP process was initiated by US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) because of its success in other states and later legislated in 2007’s SB3, which created tight deadlines for the process.  This was a particularly difficult challenge because it involved complex groundwater and surface water hydrology and a mix of state agencies, cities, farmers, industries and environmental interests.

Thousands of stakeholder hours have resulted in a feasible science-based plan that will help keep the springs flowing in a drought even more serious than the one we are enduring right now, according to computer models.  Seven years of additional work is planned on the aquifer model and other studies to help the group understand whether the plan is enough or if more is needed.   The plan is estimated to cost $18.5 million a year and will further limit the pumping of the aquifer.  Much of this money will go towards paying farmers not to pump during low water years and storing water in an underground reservoir, which will be owned and operated by San Antonio Water Systems.

As a stakeholder representing the San Marcos River Foundation, I am happy to see this plan completed and hope it will be approved by Edwards Aquifer Authority in December and forwarded on to the USFWS for their approval.  We hope we can move quickly in our region to get some of the projects underway to protect this important water resource.   This RIP is a testament to what can be accomplished when people work together for a solution.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Edwards Aquifer, Environmental Flows, Groundwater, Legislature, Regional Planning Process, Resources, SB3, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Also tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will the Drought Change the Way We Do Business?

One theme that continues to grow louder is that this drought is not like the others.  This one changes things.  Multi-generational ranchers and farmers are selling their stock and looking out over their parched land and wondering if the work of their ancestry has reached an end.  Similarly, on Lake Travis and other Texas lakes, boat access restaurants and other lake-related businesses are experiencing desperate times.  All of these stories force Texans to realize that the past may be just that.   Assumptions about water can no longer be relied upon and we must change the way we manage a supply that can be so easily placed in peril.

One change that needs to occur is the way we manage water.  As we have already written, this needs to be done at the state and local levels.   A recent opinion piece in the Austin Statesman called on the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to change their water management plan and take a more active role in the usage of their customers.  Of course, any water management changes made by the LCRA would certainly affect Austin, their largest customer.  Austin, which didn't implement additional water restrictions until early September is already facing looming Stage 3 restrictions by spring.

These drastic reductions, as currently written, ban almost all outdoor watering.  Austin Water Utility (AWU) representatives stated that Stage 3 was meant to be limited to emergencies and limited implementation.  The late implementation of Stage 2 and pending Stage 3 issues call the drought triggers and reductions into question.  AWU and the Mayor are pushing for a rewrite of the plan before it gets to Stage 3.  To be effective, any rewrite also needs to critically evaluate the Stage 2 triggers to ensure they are happening early enough to help us weather a true drought like this one and not just a dry summer.

Meanwhile, as some watch their livelihood slip away due to the drought others still feel they have a right to use a disproportionate portion of this shared resource.  Most of us have seen water running into the street or seen sprinklers working during the heat of the day.   Austin recently published their top ten water users, many of whom were not strangers to the list including cycling legend Lance Armstrong, who while not on it last year has been featured in the past.  The top user, Robert W. Girling used a staggering two million gallons of water in 2010.  For comparison sake, I used 35,000 gallons.

Another repeater, Congressman Michael McCaul blamed his high ranking on a leak for the third year in a row.  Lists like these are sometimes criticized.  Opponents argue that if people pay for the water so they shouldn't be exposed.  This argument might be more valid if their actions didn't affect all other water users.  Water belongs to all of us and the only way we will succeed is to work together. So, if you see your neighbor watering their driveway, you may want to ask them nicely to stop.  It's time to handle our water business differently.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Drought, LCRA, Water Planning | Also tagged , , | 4 Responses

Your Opportunity to Have a Say in Texas Water Planning

Every 5 years the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) completes a 50-year assessment of Texas' water supply and publishes the State Water Plan and submits it to the legislature.  This is an important planning process for water supply and considerable funding decisions are based on the projections included in this plan.

The 2012 Draft State Water Plan was recently released and TWDB is conducting public meetings to get input on the plan. A formal public hearing will be held in Austin on Oct. 17 at 6 p.m. in room 170 of the Stephen F. Austin building.  There is also a formal public hearing in addition to a 30-day public comment period up until Oct. 25.

Expect a more detailed post from us after the October 17 meeting with the highlights of the draft plan and our thoughts and concerns.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, TWDB, Water Planning | Also tagged | Leave a comment

Drought from the Power Perspective

We have said it before and we will say it again — NO ONE is immune from drought and the latest group feeling the pinch is the power producer. This should be no surprise as we have written extensively on the energy water relationship. Drought not only limits the water available for our water needs, it may also limit our power.

Texas' record breaking drought reduces the amount of available water power plants require for cooling.  If that water is not available, the plant must stop running.  Despite this critical co-dependency, power and water are still planned separately.  In times of limited water supply, this can cause big problems.  So what is the solution?  Well in the short term, the options are somewhat limited.

Maximizing conservation and efficiency by all users will help protect water for power use.  Private landowners are also seeing an opportunity.  One landowner wants to sell almost 400 million gallons of water per year to the newly permitted White Stallion plant.  White Stallion has encountered challenges in obtaining water rights because of public opposition and limited water availability.  While potentially serving a short-term goal, approval of the sale of groundwater for these purposes will cause significant problems for nearby land owners sharing in this resource, particularly in times of drought.   Simply selling water and re-purposing it will not work for the long term.

For the future, we must think beyond the short term because one thing is certain, after this drought there will be another one. We need to learn from this one and put policies in place to be ready for the next.  The power and the water sectors need to come together in their planning.  New power plants, particularly those being built in drier areas, need to use water efficient cooling technologies and companies need to complete a water availability study for the life of the plant which takes into consideration existing users and drought scenarios. Water must be discussed and planned in the beginning so we don't get caught later.

When we discuss energy security, water must be a integral part of that conversation so we don't end up sitting in the dark craving a glass of water.

Posted in Central Texas, Drought, Energy-Water Nexus, Water Planning | Also tagged , , | Leave a comment

Constitutional Proposition Could Help Ensure Texas Water

This post was written by Sachin Shah, an intern in EDF's Austin Office.

Infrastructure for the Ages

Pat Sullivan, Associated Press

On any given day this summer you can probably find a broken water main like the ones found in Southeast Houston and Central Austin. The water infrastructure in Texas isn't getting any younger, which is why the state feels it needs more money to repair the hundreds of thousands of old water pipes in the state. The American Water Works Association reports that the average amount of leakage from Texas municipal water infrastructure systems is 15 percent and 18 percent which can add up to a lot of water waste.

Water loss from leaking pipes can generate negative effects such as increased cost of water treatment, higher water costs for customers, and property damage, placing even more strain on a state with dire need of water use efficiency practices.

Currently, 78 percent of the state falls within the exceptional drought category, and other 12% isn’t doing well either.  The stress placed on both water supply and water infrastructure calls for the need to repair leaky pipelines and construct additional infrastructure to ensure continuous delivery of water.

This November, the proposed $6 billion constitutional amendment Proposition 2 will provide additional general obligation bonds by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to help restore water infrastructure and other water-related projects to increase use efficiency across the state and save much needed water. At the core of TWDB’s mission is to ensure that Texas is prepared for drought, not only by overseeing and maintaining a state water plan, but also through financing a significant portion of water and wastewater infrastructure for the state.

TWDB Drought Map

Drop in the Bucket

Proposition 2 would allow cities, counties, districts, and river authorities to apply for low-interest loans from the state for various water infrastructure projects. This financial assistance loan program is particularly helpful for municipalities who are unable to access funds from traditional market sources. This isn’t the first time citizens are voting to approve state bonds to provide loans to local governments for water projects in Texas. In 2001, voters authorized TWDB to issue $2 billion in new bonds,  which led to numerous water conservation projects across the state.

Proposition 2 would allow TWDB to issue up to a total of $6 billion in bonds at one time as cities ask for it and reissue those bonds as they are paid off without coming back to voters for permission. Without additional authority to issue state-backed bonds, TWDB would be unable to provide the financing needed to meet the state’s water and wastewater needs. The state also may be unable to provide required funding matches for federal grants, which could mean losing federal funds for Texas water programs.

In reality, $6 billion would be a drop in the bucket for the state. The TWDB estimates there is $231 billion worth of long term infrastructure needs statewide. With water issues in Texas at the front of people's minds in the coming decades, the State sees the need for statewide repairs while the rest of us have seen water bubbling up from the ground more than usual this summer.

Melanie Callahan, interim director of the TWDB, explains that it is beneficial for municipalities to borrow money from the agency rather than trying to raise bonds themselves, because of the strong credit rating of the TWDB. TWDB can issue loans at a lower rate than most of the entities throughout the state and are backed by revenue streams guaranteed by municipalities seeking the funds. As a result, Callahan said that the chance that a municipality might default is very low, even if economic conditions in municipalities become bleaker.

Texas Two-Step: More Growth, Less Supply

In Texas, our biggest challenge in sustaining job growth and economic development is water. The Texas population is expected to double by 2060. This growth is a plus in many ways, but a lack of water could stunt it.

Although we may not agree on all the various assumptions regarding future water use used in TWDB’s projected water models, we can all agree that meeting the needs of all Texans over the next 50 years is going to be a challenge so using it wisely and eliminating waste should be a top priority. While it might be true that Texas population is growing, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that we can’t save more water or use water more intelligently.


Graph from TWDB's Proposed 2012 State Water Plan


As TWDB points out, “economic losses from not creating additional water supply could result in a reduction in income of approximately $11.9 billion annually if current drought conditions continue, and as much as $115.7 billion annually by 2060, with over a million lost jobs.” One way to find additional supply is to use less. Leakage repair and water reuse can help.

 No Blank Checks

Let’s be clear that the TWDB bond loans will only be based on requests for funds from local entities and will not be a handout. In addition, the Bond Review Board, chaired by the Governor and composed of state leadership, oversees issuance of all state bonds, including the TWDB’s bonds.

One of our concerns is whether the bonds will be used for constructing reservoirs.  The proposition funds would be on a first come, first serve application basis to no one really knows exactly which projects will be funded. However, any bonds could be used for reservoir construction would likely require a legislative appropriation for construction because of the price tag.  This system of checks and balances will hopefully ensure the money goes to the best place keeping Texas with water for a long time to come.

Texans will vote on Proposition 2 along with nine other constitutional amendments on November 8, 2011.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Climate Change, TWDB, Water Conservation | Also tagged , | Leave a comment

LCRA Considers Reducing Water for Rice

UPDATE: On September 21st, LCRA voted on a proposal(discussed below) to give coastal Texas rice farmers significantly less water next year. The proposal now to the TCEQ, which needs to approve the plan for it to go into effect.

Late last week, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) announced that downstream rice farmers may soon be receiving less water unless is starts to rain.  Due to the extensive drought, the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan have been dropping precipitously and could drop to 640,000-680,000 acre-feet by January 1, 2012.  This low level is perilously close to the 600,000 acre-foot mark making the conditions worse than the 1950s drought of record.  With weather models predicting another dry year in front of us, LCRA is attempting to save as much water in the highland lakes as possible in case no rain comes.  One way to do this is to reduce the one user who can legally lose water, agriculture.

The LCRA is a permit holder to approximately to 2.1 million acre-feet/year of Colorado River water.  They contract the water to various users including cities, industry and agriculture.  These contracts can take two forms:

1) Firm water contract mean that water is available even during a severe drought. Cities, industries and electric power plants rely on firm water supplies.

2) Interruptible water is subject to rationing or curtailment first when there isn't enough for everyone. This type of contract is primarily used for agriculture

Factors that LCRA will be taking into consideration include the combined lake storage levels at the beginning of the year as well as the weather projections.  The hope is to avoid releasing water for the start of a crop if a later release to complete the crop season won't be possible.  LCRA deems this a waste of water because the initial water is consumed, but the crop can't be realized.

In order to reduce agricultural water or implement any other measure that deviates from the Water Management Plan, the LCRA has to seek approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

This issue and other potential drought management options will be discussed at LCRA's Water Operations Committee September 20th and the Board Meeting on September 24th.  We will let you know what we hear.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, LCRA, Texas Rivers, Water Planning | Also tagged , | Leave a comment

Can LCRA “just say no” to White Stallion?

This post was coauthored by Nadine Orrell and Marita Mirzatuny of the EDF Austin Office.

The battle for Colorado River water continues with a new move against White Stallion.  To recap – the issue is whether the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has the discretion to deny a water contract with the proposed White Stallion Coal Plant even if the water is “available” under normal conditions.   The problem is – what is normal these days?  In all too familiar dry conditions, other users such as the downstream rice farmers would have to reduce or stop their water use.  Since we do not know if the current drought conditions will continue, is now the time to make long-term commitments of “firm” water by granting the White Stallion Water Contract?

The Argument

LCRA’s position is that if water is available to meet a request for supply and an applicant complies with LCRA rules, LCRA must complete the contact.  The LCRA Board believes that it lacks discretion to deny the White Stallion water contract for water from “firm” supplies if those supplies were available, even if such action would force rice farmers to not have water in low water years.  However, new information indicates that the LCRA Board may have more discretion than they previously thought. 

The New Twist

 An August 29, 2011, letter from attorneys (and former Texas Commission for Environmental Quality commissioner Larry Soward) for the advocacy group No Coal Coalition to the LCRA Board of Directors, explained that the law gives the LCRA broad authority and discretion to deny the While Stallion Water Contract.  In its letter, the No Coal Coalition explained that the Texas Constitution, LCRA’s Enabling Legislation and its Water Management Plan (WMP) give LCRA the power to say no to water contracts even if the water is available under normal conditions. 

Section 59, Article XVI of the Texas Constitution gives LCRA the ability to “control, store, preserve and distribute” the waters of its rivers and streams.   LCRA’s Enabling Legislation § 8503.004, states that LCRA “may control, store, and preserve” and “may use, distribute, and sell” its waters.   Its Enabling Legislation § 8503.004(u) actually gives LCRA plenary authority to “do any and all other acts or things necessary or convenient… to the exercise of all…authority or functions conferred …by the constitution, this chapter, or any law.”   LCRA’s WMP further requires LCRA to act as a steward and exercise discretion in its role as a water manager, overseeing firm and interruptible users, and engaging in long-term planning.  In this case, that might not include the committed 25,400 acre-feet (or 8 x 109 gallons!) to a new coal plant.

Although the vote on White Stallion is currently postponed, similar issues still remain. Considering the drought conditions that we have experienced here in Texas, LCRA should exercise its broad authority and discretion to control its water contracts and just say no to White Stallion Water and others like them.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Energy-Water Nexus, LCRA, Texas Rivers, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Also tagged , , , | 1 Response

While some cities increase conservation – Plainview asks "pretty please"

The water situation in Texas is becoming dire.  It's that simple.  It hasn't rained substantially in over a year and climate models show that it is likely to stay dry, which means most cities will enter into next summer at a huge deficit.  This drought has surpassed being an inconvenience and is threatening ways of life.  Due to the strain this is placing on water resources, many cities are finally starting to respond.  As we mentioned, Austin Water Utility will be implementing Stage II restrictions next week.  Houston and Dallas have started watering restrictions as well, meanwhile cities like Corpus are doing nothing and Plainview and surrounding cities are just asking pretty please.   

In the wake of an announcement that Lake Meredith, a reservoir built to serve Lubbock and surrounding communities, will be too dry to use in the future, cities such as Plainview and Lubbock are still just "encouraging" their citizens to conserve.  Judging from the water running down Lubbock's streets and the puddles on Tech campus, it isn't working.  A quick visit to the Lubbock water utility's website reveals no watering schedule or other limitations on water use.  It is as if nothing we can do can make a difference, but nothing could be further from the truth.  

Just look at El Paso or a host of other cities who have changed the trajectory of their usage by taking charge. Asking pretty please isn't enough.  Cities need conservation programs that include education, incentive and rebate programs and regulations.  It isn't just the right thing to do. It's their job.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Ogallala, Regional Planning Process, Resources, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Also tagged , | Leave a comment

NPRs Lake Travis Story Not Completely Fair

There was an interesting NPR story today about Lake Travis depletion and how  the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) appears to rank their users.  Folks with houses and businesses on the lake claim that no one cares about them.  Similar pronouncements can heard around other depleted water reservoirs around the state.  It all brings up the question of which use is more important?  Do cities trump recreation, do jet skis override agriculture?  Only we can decide.

We do have one small bone to pick with the story.  If you have been reading our blog, you probably already know that the rice farmers aren't sitting as pretty as the story would have you believe.  Most farmers have an interruptable contract, which means that during drought or times of high demand, their water can be reduced. This is not true of the contracts with City of Austin or power producers who have firm contracts – or a guaranteed amount.  It is a bit unfair to imply that Lake Travis businesses are suffering while rice farmers are not.  The problems at Lake Travis are a result of all the water users along the Lower Colorado including municipal and industrial users who were hardly mentioned in the piece.  In fact, Austin is still only in Stage 1 watering restrictions.

As we have said before, the issue is management and how we calculate "available" water.  Don't forget the White Stallion Water Contract is up for discussion again in August.  Who knows that Lake Travis will look like then.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Energy-Water Nexus, LCRA, Water Planning | Also tagged , , | Leave a comment

New Report Criticizes Austin Water Utility

Last post, I discussed water challenges arising all over the state.  Certainly, Texas isn’t the only place struggling with these issues and echoing my blog, a new book explains it is outdated to assume that when we turn on the tap, the water will be there. 

Where there are water shortages, there should be conservation.  Unfortunately, a recent report by a local group says that isn’t the case in Austin. Paul Robbins’s report “Read It and Leak” focuses on Austin Water Utility’s (AWU) conservation programs.  The self-described policy audit gives credit to the utility for some programs, but Robbins concludes that there are continuing problems in the infrastructure, rate structure and management of the water utility. Experienced conservationists Chris Herbert of the Austin Resource Management Commission and Luke Metzger of Environment Texas agree.  Metzger stated “this report leaves you wondering if we’ll make any major progress.”

Among the report’s findings are the following highlights:

  • Austin’s water rates are the highest combined water/wastewater rates of the 10 largest cities in Texas
  • Momentum on water conservation has stalled
  • There is a lack of staffing on programs that could increase efficiencies (i.e. commercial retrofit program, enforcement of two-day mandatory watering restrictions)
  • Austin needs to making the alternative rate structure more effective
  • Lack of enforcement for the limited watering ordinance
  • More than 1,000 miles of old cast-iron water mains prone to leaking requiring effectively identifying infrastructure improvement needs

For its part, AWU defends their programs by pointing to a drop in usage.  Robbins feels much of this reduction was due to natural conditions such as rainfall and the emergency reductions put into place in 2009, which doesn’t constitute a conservation program.  This report highlights the complex issues created by water.  One thing is clear — we need to stop making bad assumptions and start planning for the reality we are living in.

Posted in Austin, Central Texas, Water Conservation, Water Planning | Also tagged , | Leave a comment