Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Finding Water Amid Drought: Legislature Considers Options

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

Texas lawmakers are looking beyond just reservoirs to find water for a thirsty, growing state.

John Nielson-Gammon, Texas’ State Climatologist, offered a grim forecast to kick off a joint House and Senate Natural Resources Committee meeting today at the Capitol.

“There’s still a good chance this will end up being the drought of record for most of the state,” he said.

Several officials from state agencies involved with Texas’ water testified at the meeting, and almost all of them found common ground in their concern for conservation and the development of new technologies, such as reuse, to increase the state’s water reserves.

There are 19 water systems spread throughout the state with less than 180 days of water supply left, according to the TCEQ. Twelve water systems have less than 90 days of water and three have less than 45 days. Spicewood Beach, a community located some 40 miles outside of Austin on Lake Travis, still has to have its water trucked in,  L’Oreal Stepny, deputy director of the office of water with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) office said.

State Senator Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), Chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, addressed the issue of evaporation. In 2011, he said, the evaporation in the Colorado River basin depleted more water than municipal use.

And global warming could be fueling it.

“The only factor related to the drought that can be clearly related to climate change is the change in temperature. The state temperature has increase on average by about two degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s. That impacts drought through evaporation,” Climatologist Neilson-Gammon said.

Direct reuse projects could prove helpful in reducing evaporation, as water would be kept in pipes instead of being released into a reservoir. Stepny of the TCEQ said applications to build reuse plants has increased and the TCEQ is trying to expedite them. Still, a reuse plant can take years to realize, and relief can’t come soon enough for some Texas communities.

The towns of Brownwood, Big Spring and Goldthwaite have applied to build such plants. If built, the plants would purify wastewater and pipe it directly back into the city’s water pipes.

While those Central and West Texas towns are not growing at an alarming rate, Texas’ total population is forecast to increase by 82 percent over the next 50 years, said Carolyn Brittin of the Texas Water Devlepment Board (TWDB). But currently existing water capacity in Texas will decrease by ten percent in the next 50 years.

“It’s attributed to a number of factors,” Brittin said. “It’s partially due to sedimentation in reservoirs, but the majority of it is declining groundwater supplies due to mining, or regulation or just the cost that is required to pump the water.”

Novel technologies and new purification techniques aside, Texas is looking at building more than a dozen reservoirs around the state. One of them, the projected 225,000 acre-foot Cedar Ridge Reservoir, would sit on drought-prone land. Abilene is currently on year-round water restrictions, said Abilene Mayor Norm Archibald.

Abilene is working on the reservoir with two nearby cities, Midland and San Angelo, to reduce the cost.

“There is no more important charge for us as leaders to ensure the future viability of our regions than that to develop adequate water supplies,” Archibald said.

State Rep. Bill Callegari (R-Houston) saw a potential problem with the proposed lake.

“How do you fill it?” he asked Archibald.

Archibald said that even with drought, the reservoir had potential. He cited studies indicating that the Clear Fork of the Brazos River would fill it.

David Barer is a reporting intern with StateImpact Texas.


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