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Water 101

Texas is in the middle of one of the most severe droughts in recorded history. The population of the state is growing rapidly, and projections are that such growth will continue. Much of Texas is arid semi-desert, with limited rainfall in normal years. Will water become the limiting factor in Texas’ growth?

With water so much on everyone’s minds, I thought it would be a good idea to review some basic facts about water. The following information is from a presentation made by Tom Mason, former General Manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, who is now a shareholder at my firm, Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody.

Water on earth:

— 97% is in the oceans

— 3% is fresh water

— 69% of fresh water is ice – glaciers and icecaps

— 30% of fresh water is groundwater

— .3% (three tenths of one percent) of the world’s fresh water is contained in rivers and lakes

Last month, Texas’ water planning agency, the Texas Water Development Board, published Texas’ 2012 Water Plan. This plan was developed through a complex planning process involving 16 regional planning groups. The plan lists 562 recommended water supply projects and strategies to meet the State’s expected water demands for the next 50 years. Estimated costs of those projects: $53 billion.

Most significant aspects of the Texas Water Plan:

Conservation. Twenty-five percent of the “new water” proposed by the plan is by conserving existing supplies. About 2/3 of that conservation is from agriculture, most of the rest municipal. Conservation is possible: San Antonio has reduced per capita water consumption by more than 40% over the last 26 years  — in part because a federal court ordered the city to limit withdrawals from the Edwards Aquifer due to environmental concerns. San Antonio engaged in educaton compaigns, new water pricing (the more you use the higher your rate), low flow toilets, repairs of leaky pipes, outdoor water restrictions. Farmers conserve by laser leveling of fields, changes in crops, more efficient irrigation equipment.

New Reservoirs. Texas’ water plan proposes that 17% of “new water” supplies will come from new reservoirs. But there are not many good reservoir sites left in Texas. New dams are very expensive, hard to permit, and few federal dollars are available for such projects. Landowners resist use of eminent domain for reservoirs. Most of the new reservoirs proposed are “off-channel” reservoirs, which will capture heavy flood flows in very large ponds and release them when needed.

Groundwater. 9% of new water supplies are projected to come from development of groundwater resources. About 60% of all water use in Texas now comes from groundwater. Regulation of groundwater development in Texas is handled by groundwater districts. There are now some 96 such districts, and each has its local governing board and sets its own rules. Many districts are underfunded and understaffed. There is now great uncertainty over the powers and limits of groundwater regulation that these districts can impose. With such decentralized management and legal uncertainty, it is difficult to predict how groundwater will meet Texas’ future water supply needs.

Water Reuse. The water plan derives 10% of its “new water” for Texas’ future from reusing treated sewage effluent. Again, the increased use of treated effluent has caused legal uncertainty: who owns water once it has been treated for reuse?

Desalination. 3.5% of “new water” in the Texas Water Plan is from desalination. The cost of water from desalination is now 2 to 7 times more than river water or groundwater.

Water is a big energy user. The State of California uses almost 20% of its total energy production to treat and move water. The City of Austin’s water utility is the single largest customer of the City’s electric utility. Energy production is also one of the largest water users, although much of the water used for electric generation is returned to rivers and streams after use.

Water and energy remain two of the biggest challenges for Texas, our nation and the world.

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