Experts urge further progress towards water security at Texas Water Summitby Kathy Wythe
The state should not waste the attention the 2011 drought has brought upon water security, said experts at a recent water conference in Austin. The need to move forward in research, planning and policy and to diversify Texas' water supplies were the common threads voiced.
Water resources scientists, agency staff and industry experts spoke to a packed house last week at the 2012 Texas Water Summit in Austin. The summit, organized by the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, focused on water security for Texas' future. The Water Conservation and Technology Center, a center of the Texas Water Resources Institute and Texas Center of Applied Technology, was a sponsor.
Dr. Ron Kaiser, a Texas A&M University professor, said the state should not waste a bad drought, but use this opportunity to make substantial changes to water policy. He cited major changes made to water planning regulations after previous droughts, including changes in integrating different water laws into a prior appropriations system after the 1950s drought, known as the drought of record, and Senate Bill 1 in the 1990s, which instituted the current state water planning process.
While most acknowledged that the state's water planning has advanced since the drought of record, it was also noted that the recent drought has exposed areas in which the state needs to improve.
Dr. Todd Votteler, executive manager of science, intergovernmental relations and policy for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, said the state no longer has the surplus of water supplies it had from the reservoirs built after the drought of record. "(Building those reservoirs) created this cushion, which peaked in the early 1970s and is now gone," he said.
Votteler said Texas has the same amount of surface water storage capacity per capita available now that it had in 1953.
Although the current water plan calls for more than $53 billion in water management strategies and projects to meet the needs of the projected population in 2060, several speakers did not think state funding for those improvements will happen in the next session.
Votteler noted that there is no financing mechanism to fund these strategies and projects. "And the prospects for that happening in next legislative session are not good, since it has started to rain," he said.
Dr. Robert Mace, Texas Water Development Board deputy executive administrator for water science and conservation, who gave the keynote speech during lunch, said cost is the biggest obstacle in getting the water plan funded. "It's expensive and the challenge is convincing rate payers and politicians that it is worth the cost."
Kaiser acknowledged that Texas will struggle to find solutions to integrate surface water and groundwater management. One of the challenges in managing Texas water, Kaiser said, is so much is already spoken for. Twelve of the fifteen rivers are fully used, according to his presentation.
"90 percent of surface water rights are controlled by 200 permit holders," he said.
Robert Puente, San Antonio Water System (SAWS) president and chief executive officer, spotlighting his agency's successful efforts in managing its limited water supplies, said SAWS has reduced its per capita water use by conserving its available water and reducing demand.
"Water conservation is probably the cheapest source of additional water supplies," he said.
Unlike most business models, Puente said, "Our business model for San Antonio is to convince the customers to buy less of our product."
The city has also diversified its water supplies by recycling its treated wastewater, using aquifer storage and recovery and planning desalination of brackish water. The water system has seen success in that model from 1984 to 2009. "We have 67 percent more customers and use zero percent more water," he said. "If we had not had water conservation, we would need an additional 121,000 acre-feet to deliver water to those customers."
The drought of 2011 exposed the state's limitations and understanding of drought and water supply planning, speakers said.
While the public focuses on the amount of rainfall the state gets, temperature is just as important when considering how much water Texas will have in the future, said Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state's climatologist and a Texas A&M professor. Last year broke the record for highest average temperature by 2 ½ degrees, he said.
Higher temperatures increase evaporation from lakes, decrease runoff and stress plants, which then need more water. "Temperature affects everything that happens to water once it reaches the ground," he said. "It's the big uncertainty as far as our water supply."
He believes building a real-time information system for water in Texas can help project what will happen 6–18 months into the future. He is working with a drought technology steering committee—a group of Texas university researchers and water agency staff "to move forward with the best insight and understanding of what the future conditions are going to be," he said.
Mace said available water is decreasing, in part due to the drainage of the Ogallala Aquifer and sedimentation of the state's reservoirs, while the demand is going up. "We lose about 90,000 acre-feet a year from sedimentation coming into our reservoirs," he said.
Advanced water conservation or using existing water resources more efficiently, "constitutes a large part of where we think our future water supply is going to come from," Mace said.
Other countries that have faced severe water shortages such as Australia and Israel have diversified their supplies and this diversification for Texas is essential, Mace said. "Just like you diversify your financial portfolio, you want your water portfolio diversified."
Both Mace and Dr. Ellen McDonald, principal of Alan Plummer Associates, Inc., pointed to the Colorado River Municipal Water District's plans to build a direct water reuse plant in Big Spring as an example of what Texas will need to do more of in the future.
The Big Spring project will be "one of three direct reuse projects in the world," McDonald said. "Texas is really on the forefront with this project."
McDonald said water reuse, or the beneficial use of treated wastewater "is not the answer to everything, but can play an important role" in future water supplies.
Desalination or brackish and seawater is the other big answer on Texas' horizon, according to several speakers.
Ed Archuleta, El Paso Water Utilities president and chief executive officer, said its Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant can produce 27.5 million gallons a day and increases fresh water production for El Paso by 25 percent.