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Texas Water Development Board

From Harvey to drought

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The Texas Panhandle has become ground zero in a drought that has crept into much of the state just five months after Hurricane Harvey — including areas that suffered massive flooding during the storm.

More than 40 percent of Texas is now in a moderate to severe drought, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s compared to 4 percent on Aug. 29, a few days after Harvey slammed into the South Texas coast.

And dry conditions are expected to worsen over the coming months.

“As soon as Hurricane Harvey cleared Texas, then we almost immediately started going into the next drought,” said Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist for the Texas Water Development Board.

August was the wettest year in the state in 124 years, but every month since then — aside from December — has been considerably dry, he said.

Part of Beaumont, which saw nearly 50 inches of rain when Harvey stalled over southeast Texas as a tropical storm, is now in a moderate drought. And all of the city is considered “abnormally dry,” according to the drought monitor.

Drought conditions are particularly bad in North Texas and especially in the Panhandle, where all 26 of the region’s counties are in a severe to extreme drought and most have burn bans in effect. The outdoor fire restrictions don’t stop there, though: They’re in effect in more than one-third of Texas’ 254 counties, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Two bits of good news here. One is that Harris County is completely out of the drought zone, and two is that the longer-range forecast is for more normal rainfall beginning in May. One hopes that means a non-blistering summer. Be that as it may, this is what normal looks like now, one extreme to another. Maybe we should take climate change just a wee bit more seriously, you know, to try and cope better with this? Just a thought.

Abbott orders state agencies to obey the law

Better late than never.

Droppin’ dimes, droppin’ dimes

Gov. Greg Abbott and Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Wednesday ordered state agencies to stop paying departing employees by placing them on “emergency leave.”

“Pursuant to this directive, the use of emergency leave, administrative leave or other mechanisms to continue paying state employees who have ceased to work will be prohibited,” the directive from Abbott and Hegar stated. The directive will remain in place until the Legislature takes up the issue during next year’s legislative session, Abbott’s office said.

The Dallas Morning News and other media outlets have recently reported on the growing practice by agencies to keep departing employees on the payroll by placing them on “emergency leave,” often as a form of severance.

The practice first came to light after reports that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton paid his first assistant attorney and communications director for months after they left the agency. Subsequent stories revealed the General Land Office continued to pay departing employees without using the emergency leave designation.

Representatives of both agencies said they will follow the governor’s new order.

“We appreciate Governor Abbott’s leadership,” said Marc Rylander, spokesman for the attorney general’s office. “We do not disagree with the Governor’s new policy for all agencies subject to the direction of the governor, and we will concur with it moving forward.”

Brittany Eck, GLO spokeswoman, said the agency will suspend the use of separation agreements until lawmakers decide how to proceed.

“We look forward to continuing our work with the Governor, Comptroller, and members of the Texas Legislature to not only clarify the law on this issue but also discuss how state agencies should manage its workforce in an efficient and cost-effective manner,” Eck said.

See here and here for the background. The Lone Star Project requested an investigation into this a couple of days ago. I guess it had finally gotten to the point where Abbott could no longer ignore the issue. Trail Blazers and the Chron have more.

Lone Star Project requests investigation of severance packages

From the inbox:

BagOfMoney

Today, Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle sent letters to the Texas Rangers, the State Auditor and the Travis County District Attorney requesting formal investigations into a series of questionable payments made by Attorney General Ken Paxton, State Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, State Land Commissioner George P. Bush and other state officials.

Improper Payments Detailed in Investigative News Reports

Widespread abuse of state employee compensation has been detailed in a series of investigative news reports by the Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and other Texas publications over recent weeks.  The reports point to the systematic use of “emergency leave” as well as document manipulation to allow some state employees to quit or be removed from their state jobs but continue receiving thousands of dollars in state pay.   In some cases, the payments appear intended to provide special treatment to politically connected or otherwise favored employees.  In other instances, the payments may be a form of hush money to keep specific employees from criticizing state officials or disclosing information that might prove incriminating or embarrassing.

Angle’s letter to the Texas Rangers can be seen here and reads in part:

“These reports confirm that, contrary to the intent of law, multiple statewide officeholders have provided certain employees with emergency leave packages as a form of severance pay or even settlement agreements.”

“The intentional misuse of state funds violates both the spirit and the letter of the emergency leave provision of state law and could be viewed by Texas taxpayers as the equivalent of tax-payer funded hush money.”

“Specifically, the facts outlined by state news media and Texas state law merit a full investigation of the Attorney General, Agriculture Commissioner, Land Commissioner, Teacher Retirement System, Water Development Board and potentially other agencies for violations of Texas Penal Code 39.02 (Abuse of Official Capacity), Section 36.02 (Bribery), and Section 37.10 (Tampering with a Government Record).”

See here and here for the background. I had assumed someone would file a complaint over this sooner or later. The Rangers and the State Auditor can add it to their growing to-do list. The Chron has more.

We still face water shortages

Yes, we’ve had a lot of rain lately. No, that hasn’t solved all our water problems.

The recent rainfall that drenched much of Houston and the state was thought to put the drought and the state’s water supply concerns at ease as summer approaches. Texas, known for multiyear droughts, now has many lakes and reservoirs over, at or near capacity.

Today, only 15,726 Texans are affected by drought– a sharp drop from the 10.8 million affected at the beginning of the year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But water shortages are affecting millions because bulging lake levels and soaked soil don’t reflect the levels of underground reservoirs. For example, the 8 inches that fell on tiny Lazbuddie in May wasn’t enough to restore the underground water table.

About 10 million Texans, including 600,000 in the Houston area, are under some level of water restriction, limiting nonessential usage. Of that, 60,000 residents, primarily to the west and south, are at risk of running out of water, according to state data.

Some of the restrictions in Harris, Montgomery, Brazoria, Liberty and Galveston counties range from mild to moderate and include limiting outdoor watering to no more than once a week or prohibiting all outdoor watering.

One problem is that many residents, including those in the Houston area, rely heavily on groundwater.

While a lake’s reservoir can be filled in a day or two, it can take several significant years of rainfall and a few additional years on top of that for the rain to seep through and recharge an aquifer.

“Aquifers do respond to rainfall, but it’s very slowly,” said Larry French, groundwater resource division director at the Texas Water Development Board.

[…]

According to the state water board, about 2.2 million Texans rely on groundwater from their own wells for their drinking water. And groundwater supplies more than 99 percent of drinking water for the rural population.

To say May’s showers ended the drought depends on where a person lives and where their water comes from, French says.

“East Texas has been blessed with an abundance of surface water, but West Texas is a different story,” French said.

One of the things that the water infrastructure bond issue from 2013 is intended to do is help build reservoirs, which deals with this problem. Of course, as much as anything, the real issue is population growth. The more people drawing from the same source – as is the case in Montgomery County, which the story notes is starting to draw some water from Lake Conroe – the less there is for everyone. The bottom line is that conservation is still a vital component of any water plan for Texas going forward, whatever part of the state you’re in.

Just a reminder, we still need to use less water

In particular, we need to water our lawns less.

Less of this, please

Even Texans with the greenest of lawns water them too much, many landscape experts say. And if everyone would turn on the sprinklers only twice a week — still probably more than necessary — the water savings would be significant, according to a report from the Sierra Club released Tuesday.

In the Dallas and Houston regions, about 52 billion gallons of water per year could be saved just by cutting back lawn watering, the report says. That’s enough to supply almost half a million Austin-area homes for a year. And the numbers include lawns with St. Augustine grass, among the thirstiest of choices for a green lawn.

“Even if you have [St. Augustine] and you want to maintain it, you don’t need to water as much as you have been doing,” said Ken Kramer, water conservation chairman of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter.

The projections are based on the known effects of twice-a-week lawn-watering restrictions in various Texas cities. Only a handful of cities, including Dallas, Fort Worth and Irving, have such limits in place year-round, regardless of whether there’s a drought.

Environmental groups say these findings show that addressing Texas’ water problems doesn’t always require building controversial new reservoirs or expensive infrastructure. While the Houston and Dallas areas are projected to double in population by 2060, the savings of twice-a-week-watering would double as well, to 95 billion gallons of water annually, the report says. That’s equivalent to more than half of what the proposed Marvin Nichols reservoir would provide for North Texas, if the controversial $3.4 billion project ever gets built.

I’ve blogged about this before. The Texas Water Development Board published a report recently about the state’s future water needs and how conservation could help meet them in a cost-efficient manner. Texas is a growing state, and its water needs will continue to grow as well. But some parts of the state a drier than others, and some parts are growing faster, and as we have seen a lot of these projects to bring more water to where it’s needed are quite expensive. It costs nothing to water your lawn less. Surely we all can see the value in that.

Give up the green

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

We clip it, bag it, throw it away, feed it, love it, hate it, fight with it, protect it, brag on it and curse it. Our lush green lawns suck up a preposterous amount of our time, energy, money and water supplies. That’s why Texas – still facing major water woes – is the perfect place to open a national discussion on the need to give up this ridiculous obsession.

Lawn care is big business in the United States. According to Ted Steinberg, the author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, Americans spend a massive $40 billion on their lawns every year. Texas, famous for its big suburbs full of big homes surrounded by big lawns, surely makes up a large portion of that total.

The sheer volume of water used for lawn upkeep is even more incredible. According to a Texas Water Development Board study, 259 Texas cities between 2004 and 2008 used an annual total of about 96.7 billion gallons of water outdoors – 80 to 90 percent of which is estimated to have been used to maintain lawns and plants. To put that into perspective, picture all the water that runs over Niagara Falls during a 40-hour workweek. Now imagine that same amount poured into our yards. Just in Texas.

This tremendous wastefulness has continued during a time of scarcity. Texas, already drier than most of the rest of the U.S. to begin with, is in the middle of one of its worst droughts in history. But the lawn care industry is humming along and, along with agriculture, remains a major source of water consumption. (Of course, we don’t eat the grass; it goes into a landfill, but not until after we’ve dumped an estimated 22 inches of water on it, according to the Texas Water Resources Institute.)

In many ways, Texas has adeptly handled water shortages in recent years. Cities like San Antonio are leading the way in municipal conservation efforts, and Texas voters in 2013 overwhelmingly approved a plan to take $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to fund water supply projects. We’re faring considerably better than states like California, where several communities are on the verge of running out of water, and other parts of the world like China.

Still, we drop enough fresh, potable water into our yards every day to make T. Boone Pickens blush.

We must cast aside our vanity-fueled insistence that lush lawns are a fixture of our modern lifestyle. There’s no good reason to plant thirstier varieties of grass, like St. Augustine, instead of hardier types like native buffalograss. Incorporating xeriscaping, or dry landscaping, into more lawns would also help reduce water use.

If Gov. Rick Perry can talk about marijuana in the same tones as President Obama, surely we can have a meaningful conversation about the other kind of grass, too.

Mustafa Tameez (@mustafatameez) is Founder and Managing Director of Outreach Strategists, a Houston based communications and public affairs firm. He is also a contributor for the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Tribune, and co-hosts a FOX26 Sunday morning show, “The Round Up.” This post was originally published on Trib Talk.

(Ed. note: Charles here. When I talk about water conservation, this is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Putting aside the question of how we landscape our yards, it’s insane to use this much clean, drinkable water on grass, especially since much of it gets wasted anyway. If we’re going to get serious about managing our future water needs, this is one of the fatter targets out there. Some cities like El Paso have by necessity led the way on this, but at some point state action will be required. Until then, we should at least be aware of this. We can spend a lot of money generating the water we need, or we can use less and spend less.)

Maybe we don’t need that much more water

More conservation would mean less demand and less need going forward.

Drought-prone Texas could make better use of its existing water supplies and avoid spending billions of dollars on new reservoirs, pipelines and other big-ticket projects with more realistic forecasts for demand, according to an analysis released Friday.

The report by the Texas Center for Policy Studies, a nonprofit environmental research group, concluded that the state overestimates how much water it will need as its population grows over the next half-century. The state also underestimates the potential of conserving water in dry times.

As a result, Texas is trying to add 8.3 million acre-feet of water by 2060 with new infrastructure. An acre-foot is typically enough to satisfy three families for a year. But the report found that the state could reduce the gap to about 3.3 million acre-feet through conservation and use of unconventional sources, such as brackish groundwater.

The state’s projected shortfall “isn’t a real number,” said Mary Kelly, an Austin-based lawyer who was one of the report’s authors. “The real gap is about half that amount.”

The report received a mixed review from the Texas Water Development Board, which oversees the state’s water planning. The agency acknowledged that some of it assumptions could be revised but was skeptical of other changes proposed in the study.

[…]

For now, Texas’ plan calls for new reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects to avoid grave shortages in 50 years because of an ever-swelling population. State officials estimate the price tag at $53 billion.

To spur development of projects listed in the plan, Texas voters decided last November to dip into the state’s savings account to create a $2 billion fund that would reduce borrowing costs for municipalities seeking to increase their water supply.

But the report said Texas might not need to spend so much to increase its water supply, particularly if its demands are lower than projected. The forecast is inaccurate in part because it assumes that each Texan will use almost the same amount of water each day in the future even as new technology is helping them to use less.

The report is here, the Texas Center for Policy Studies project page with all of their related work is here, their press release is here, and the TCPS blog post with a summary of the report is here. As you know, I firmly believe we need to emphasize conservation and where possible prioritize it over building new water infrastructure. It’s cheaper and more sustainable, and cities like San Antonio and El Paso have shown it’s readily doable. The plan that was approved in last year’s referendum does include some emphasis on conservation, to its credit, but there’s always room for more. I’m glad to see the TCPS highlight this.

Brazoria looks at desalinization

Booming population growth plus greater upstream demands on their main water source equals thoughts of alternate water supplies.

By the time the Brazos bisects Brazoria County on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s all but tapped out, unable to keep pace with new urban demands.

To firm up its water supply, a Brazoria County utility is moving quickly to pump from a massive saline aquifer beneath the Houston region’s surface. The Brazosport Water Authority’s roughly $60 million project – once the first phase is completed in 2017 – would convert millions of gallons of salty water into potable, or drinking, water each day.

The process, known as desalination, is used across Texas, mostly in the drier western half of the state. The Lake Jackson facility would be the first of its kind in greater Houston, which typically benefits from plentiful rain and full reservoirs. The city of Houston, in particular, is planning to meet its long-term needs with surface water and reused wastewater.

“It’s a bad time for rivers in Texas, and we’re only going to see more demand for water,” said Ronnie Woodruff, general manager of the Brazosport Water Authority, which has relied on the Brazos to provide water to seven cities and a massive chemical manufacturing complex. Brackish, or salty, groundwater “is a new, reliable source.”

Desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, but the stubborn drought, which now covers three-fourths of Texas, has infused the discussion about its possibilities with a jolt of urgency. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for one, has instructed a state Senate committee to study how to expand the use of brackish water before the Legislature convenes in January.

Texas already has built 46 desalting plants for public-water needs. But there is the opportunity for manymore, considering the state holds about 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, the Texas Water Development Board estimates. That’s more than 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually.

For all its untapped potential, desalination of brackish water might not be a cure-all for a thirsty state, experts say. In addition to the cost, which will result in higher rates for customers, the desalting process requires disposal of the leftover brine in a way that avoids harming fresh water and the environment.

And it is still unclear how the push for brackish groundwater will impact the Houston region’s persistent problem with subsidence, the sinking of soils as water is pumped from underground. The geological condition can crack pavement and cause flooding. Several coastal communities are weaning themselves from groundwater because of the issue.

[…]

Some people worry that the project will become a high-tech monument to panic. The water authority should focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Mary Ruth Rhodenbaugh, a former Brazoria County commissioner who served on a local water-planning task force.

“God gives us water, and then He expects us to use our brains,” she said. “I’m not against brackish desalination, but I think we should be looking at other things first.”

I’ve written about desalinization a few times before. It’s an increasingly popular proposal around the state, as there’s plenty of potential supply. But it’s expensive, there are issues with what to do with the briny wastewater, and as noted no one really knows what the subsidence effect will be. No question, the best alternative is always conservation, and I don’t think that gets enough emphasis. If cities like San Antonio and El Paso can do it, surely Brazoria County can as well.

We need to take better care of our water

We lose way too much of it because our infrastructure is old and in need of replacement.

At a time when the Lone Star State is facing a grave water shortage and its population is expected to double by 2060, billions of gallons are hemorrhaging from Texas’ leaky old pipes.

The exact loss is unknown as only 10 percent of the state’s 3,500 utilities were required to report their 2012 losses. But in Houston, enough water seeped from broken pipes to supply 383,000 residents for one year.

According to city records, Houston pipelines gushed 22.4 billion gallons of water in 11,343 leaks last fiscal year. That equates to about 15.2 percent of the city’s total water supply.

No state standard exists on an acceptable loss rate, but some utilities manage to hold their losses to single digits.

Proposition 6, which Texas voters approved last month, could help fund some Houston pipeline improvements since 20 percent of the $2 billion was set aside for statewide conservation efforts. The fund is designed to secure the state water supply for the next 50 years.

“We are still working on establishing the rules for using this money. It should be available by 2015,” said John Sutton, Texas Water Development spokesman.

Mayor Annise Parker’s spokeswoman, Jessica Michan, said the city plans to go after the conservation funds.

Michan said the city already has a separate request in with the TWD for $71 million to rebuild 130 miles of pipe. That request is still pending.

Alvin Wright, Houston’s public works spokesman, said it would take an “astronomical sum”- several billion dollars – to upgrade Houston’s entire system.

Well, water conservation is on Mayor Parker’s third term agenda. I don’t know how much they’ll be able to fund via this mechanism, but perhaps there are some high-value projects that can be done first. This sort of work really needs to be done, and should be prioritized because the fewer the leaks, the less new capacity that will need to be built. There’s plenty of this kind of work to be done across the state, and around the country. Ideally, there would be a federal program to provide grant money for all this work, but Republican nihilism plus an obsessive myopia about the deficit means that will never happen. Prop 6 was far from perfect, but it was the best we were going to get. Let’s make the most of it.

Water infrastructure bill passes

This is good.

The Texas House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to create a revolving, low-interest loan program to help finance a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects for the drought-stricken state.

Lawmakers approved House Bill 4 on a 146-2 vote, but left the question of how much seed money to provide the program for another day.

State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican who filed the bill, said a $2 billion capitalization could finance the state’s entire longrange water plan, which identifies 562 projects over the next half-century to satisfy the demands of a rapidly growing population.

The startup money would come from the state’s unencumbered Rainy Day Fund under separate legislation filed by Ritter. His HB 11 is pending in a House subcommittee on budget transparency and reform.

Ritter said the new fund could leverage $27 billion over the next 50 years for water-related infrastructure. The loan program, as designed, would allow the state to continue lending money for projects as earlier loans are paid back.

“This will work,” Ritter told House members to close a four-hour debate.

See here for some background on this program, which is called SWIFT, the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas. The good news about this is that conservation efforts were made an explicit part of SWIFT, and the forces of nihilism were beaten back, at least for the day. The Observer explains.

Despite the bill’s easy passage (there were 146 ‘ayes’ and just two ‘nos’), tea party-oriented members launched a challenge to key provisions in the bill-and spectacularly failed in what was another defeat for ideological enforcers like Michael Quinn Sullivan and Texans for Prosperity’s Peggy Venable, whose involvement in the spoiler effort lurked just beneath the surface of the debate.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) led an effort to remove a key water-conservation provision. HB 4 has earned the support of some conservationists because Ritter included a stipulation that at least 20 percent of the funding go toward water conservation. King’s amendment would’ve gutted that requirement. King’s fellow legislators didn’t buy it though; the amendment was killed with a vote of 104 to 41.

Rep. Van Taylor’s (R-Plano) proposed amendments didn’t go over so well either. Taylor, for one, wanted to ban the transfer of Rainy Day Fund money to get the water bank rolling.

Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), in a moment of political drama, called Taylor out for being what he called “disingenuous.” He asked Taylor if, should his proposed amendment pass, he intended to vote for HB 4. Taylor replied that he would still not vote for the bill.

Larson blew up. “If you’re not going to vote for the bill and you’re offering up amendments, I think everyone in this body needs to recognize that. The idea of an amendment is to make the bill better … and what you’re doing I believe is disingenuous, to step up and offer amendments for political reasons, to try to gain some kind of favor instead of trying to make the bill legitimately better.” The House shot Taylor’s amendment down with a vote of 127 to 18.

Good for you, Rep. Larson. There are legitimate questions about using the Rainy Day Fund for this purpose, but that’s not where Rep. Taylor was coming from. The puppet masters behind his amendment were as always primarily interested in spending as little money as possible on anything, regardless of its merit or value. If the startup funds for SWIFT come out of general revenue instead of the Rainy Day Fund, there’s that much less money for other things, like schools and Medicaid and everything else. It was a bad amendment, offered in bad faith, and it got what it deserved. But that won’t be the end of it, because there’s a separate bill (HB11) to authorize the transfer of funds from the RDF, and of course the Senate hasn’t discussed its companion bill yet. There are still plenty of opportunities for the forces of darkness to do their thing. PDiddie and the Trib have more.

Adventures in water marketing

The headline on this story is about Texans’ increasing interest in recycling water. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But there’s another way of describing it that maybe isn’t so appealing.

Experts say recycled wastewater will play a key role in satisfying the thirst of a rapidly growing population. While reuse now provides 2 percent of Texas’ water, state officials say that over the next half-century the drought-proof source will account for at least 10 percent of new supplies.

To reach the goal, state lawmakers may require at least 20 percent of any new funding for water-related infrastructure to go toward conservation or reuse. The requirement is part of House Bill 4, which would allow a one-time transfer of $2 billion into a new revolving, low-interest loan program for water projects.

“This is a robust and reliable source,” said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency. “Its future is very promising.”

[…]

Before drought began gripping the state in 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality typically approved fewer than 20 reuse requests from cities and water districts each year. The number jumped to 32 two years ago and 38 last year, with 25 applications already pending this year, the agency said.

Arroyo attributed the increasing interest in reclaimed water in part to the lingering drought, which covers 74 percent of the state. He also credited improving technology, which now is capable of turning sewage into water so clean it’s almost distilled.

[…]

Water managers see wetlands as a reliable, less-expensive solution to more dams, aqueducts and pipelines that deliver water over long distances. Wetlands allow them to reuse water that they already paid at least once to store and purify.

For all the interest in toilet-to-tap technology, more new potable reuse projects will take the indirect route through wetlands, rather than go straight to the faucet, Arroyo said. Meanwhile, most water reuse will continue to be for irrigation, landscaping and purposes other than human consumption.

I’m going to step out on a limb here and venture that if you were in charge of an advertising campaign for water recycling, you might prefer to steer clear of the phrase “toilet to tap technology”. I mean, you probably don’t want people thinking too much about where that water originated. I know, I know, this is ultimately the way it goes for all of our water, with or without any fancy new technology. I suspect most people would rather imagine that their water all comes from a nice reservoir or a cool mountain stream or something like that. It may not matter that much if most of the recycled water goes to things like irrigation or decoration or other non-drinking purposes. I’m just saying.

Meet SWIFT

SWIFT is the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, which would be created by the big water bills of the session, HB4 and SB4. Basically, this is a plan to create a water infrastructure bank, to finance various water projects that the state needs at low interest, with some seed money from the Rainy Day Fund to get started. So far the proposals have been met with approval by the various stakeholders.

A parade of Texas mayors on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to invest $2 billion in reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects.

Houston’s Annise Parker, San Antonio’s Julian Castro and other mayors said the passage of House Bill 4, which would create a fund to help pay for water-related infrastructure, is necessary to satisfy the demands of residents and businesses.

“We are not going to wait, but it sure would be nice to have the state with us,” said Parker, who said Houston is moving forward on water projects. “If the rest of the state does not make the same efforts we have, we may lose our competitive advantage.”

[…]

State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican who filed the bill, said a $2 billion capitalization could finance the state’s entire long-range water plan, which identifies 562 projects at a cost of $53 billion over the next half-century.

The initial $2 billion would come from the state’s rainy day fund

The projects would be selected by the Texas Water Development Board but would be locally owned and controlled, Ritter emphasized.

“They need help in what I call ‘getting over the hump,'” he said of the financing challenge water providers face with projects that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to complete.

There’s a lot of money at stake, and any time there’s a lot of money at stake, there are many competing interests for it.

“We can’t afford to pit one [group] against another,” said Laura Huffman, of the Nature Conservancy. “A growing state is going to want to eat, drink and turn the lights on.”

Much will depend on whether key lawmakers—Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland) and Fraser in particular—can craft a fair structure for distributing what will likely be billions of dollars over the coming decades.

“I think it’s like most of the issues that come before this body,” said state Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels). “Follow the money.” Austin American-Statesman reporter Asher Price did just that. He found that one of the organizations behind the push for a state water bank, H2O4Texas, is funded by “industries that stand to benefit from massive projects to move water around the state.”

That’s not terribly surprising but suggests that legislators will have to be careful to guard against allowing the water bank to turn into a slush fund.

The key word is: prioritization. The state water plans lists 562 distinct water projects, a wish list drafted by hundreds of “stakeholders” organized into 16 regional water planning groups. Those projects are the essence of the plan. But how do you pick which ones to fund? What form does the funding take—grants, loans, etc? Which projects get funded first? Do conservation-focused projects receive a leg up or is the money going to flow into new reservoirs?

Ritter’s legislation, House Bill 4, has been praised by environmentalists for requiring that at least 20 percent of the funds go toward water conservation.

Sen. Fraser’s legislation, Senate Bill 4, would create a fund outside of the state treasury but would put the Texas Water Development Board in charge of prioritizing the projects. But Fraser repeatedly complained today that the board is ill-equipped to take on such a huge task. Fraser said he’d had trouble getting a simple list of water-supply projects that the board considers top priorities.

Under Senate Bill 4, the Water Development Board would be run by three full-time commissioners instead of six part-timers. It would also set up a nine-member advisory committee to recommend water projects to the full board. Other senators, however, piled on Fraser’s proposal, leading him to stress that it was a work in progress and likely to be negotiated until the bitter end.

This AP report goes into more detail about conservation and highlights a potential stumbling block for the legislation.

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that it was critical that the state emphasizes conservation and ensures enough water is left behind for the eco-system. He pointed out that large-scale water projects, such as new reservoirs, can have a negative impact on the environment.

“In 1968, the State Water Plan predicted that by the year 2020 you would need 32 million acre-feet of water. Of course it’s almost 2020 now, and we’re only using 18 million acre-feet,” he said. “It’s critical that in planning for the next 50 years, we are flexible and we’re careful not to burden Texans in the future with huge debts for projects we might not need.”

He pointed out that San Antonio grew by more than 65 percent while still using the same amount of water and said other cities could follow that model. He said plans are for the state to meet 34 percent of future water needs through conservation and called on the committee to set aside that much of the new water fund for projects that save water.

Just fixing leaky water mains could save enough water for 2.7 million Texans, Metzger said.

[…]

So far no group has come out against creating what would be called the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, or SWIFT. But the measure may require Republican lawmakers to vote in favor of lifting the state’s constitutional spending limit, which many conservatives do not want on their record.

Have I mentioned before that artificial spending and revenue caps are stupid and destructive? This is another illustration of why. The issue here is whether appropriating money from the Rainy Day Fund would count towards the revenue cap, which mandates that spending can only grow so much from one biennium to the next. Use of the Rainy Day Fund wasn’t originally intended to be included in such calculations, but the fanatics who rule over Republican primaries don’t care for such subtleties, so the issue remains a potential roadblock for doing the things the Lege has said it wants to do.

Finally a focus on water

The good news is that the 2013 Lege does seem to be serious about water issues.

House Speaker Joe Straus recently said Texas’ water needs will be a high priority, while Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, proposed tapping the Rainy Day Fund for $1 billion to finance new infrastructure identified in the state’s long-range water plan.

Previous attempts to fund the water plan failed because of spending concerns, but Straus and Dewhurst have said the state cannot afford to go thirsty as its population grows. The plan warns of grave shortages by 2060 without more supplies.

The new push to fund the plan is encouraging, said Heather Harward, executive director of H2O4Texas, a coalition of businesses, cities and water suppliers. “We could have certainty once and for all,” Harward said.

The group has called for lawmakers to pour as much as $2 billion from the roughly $8 billion Rainy Day Fund to help pay for water-related infrastructure. The money would be part of a revolving loan program in which the state would help cities and other public entities start projects. Once the loan is repaid, other projects could get financing.

The Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency, has advocated a similar approach. It has suggested that the state could finance $44 billion in projects over the next half-century with a $2.6 billion capitalization.

[…]

Some policy experts and environmentalists are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming each Texan will use the same amount per day in the future. Studies show people across the country are using less water now than they were 30 years ago.

The estimated cost of the state’s plan, especially over the next decade, “strains the imagination,” said Sharlene Leurig, an Austin-based expert on water-project financing at Ceres, a nonprofit group that works with investors to promote sustainability. “In reality Texas needs to spend far less than that to meet its water needs.”

Leurig said cities should push to reduce daily consumption though conservation and efficiency because “it’s the cheapest water available.” In contrast, building expensive infrastructure to meet future demand that does not materialize will put the credit ratings of public water systems at risk and significantly increase tax and water bills for customers.

Like I said, it’s a good thing that the Lege is starting to pay attention to this issue. You would have thought they’d have considered it back in 2011 when we were in the middle of the worst drought of most people’s lifetimes, but the Republicans were all drunk on austerity punch back then, and they’re only just now beginning to figure out where they’ve woken up, and where their clothes and car keys are. The qualm I have is with the use of the Rainy Day Fund to kickstart things. Yes, it makes a certain amount of sense, and yes, there’s more than enough money in the RDF to cover what they’re talking about. The problem is that the 2011 Lege wrote a bunch of hot checks that the 2013 Lege will have to cover – $4.7 billion to Medicaid, $2.1 billion to schools, all deferred obligations from the last biennium – and unless you’re willing to basically drain the RDF dry, there’s not enough in there to cover all of these things. If we use the RDF for this purpose, and then Straus and Dewhurst et al turn around and say the RDF is now off limits because there just isn’t enough there to pay for other things and still maintain a cushion, that’s not good. Since those obligations must be met, it would mean the funds would come out of revenue for this session, which is another way of saying you can kiss that so-called surplus good-bye. Frankly, under that scenario, I’d expect there would need to be more cuts, especially if the Lege follows through on its claims to be more transparent about the budget and to not resort to the sort of skulduggery they’ve always used to make the budget appear to be balanced. We’ve robbed from the needy enough, thanks.

I also share Ms. Leurig’s concern about the need to prioritize conservation above all other efforts, as conservation is by far the cheapest and most effective solution. As the story notes, the San Antonio Water System, which has always emphasized conservation, came through 2011 in pretty good shape, while the wastrel city of Midland ran its water supply down so far it wound up hurting its water enterprise’s credit rating. Let’s not lose sight of simple and cost-effective ways to use less water and to encourage the use of less water, and let’s not build any reservoirs we’re not sure we really need.

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

Fixing pipes needs to be part of the state water plan

The idea of conservation is to use less than you are currently using. When a large part of your water usage is due to leaks and losses, any sensible plan for conservation should start with addressing the underlying issues causing those leaks.

About 40 percent of the pipes supplying Houston’s water are still in use years past their life expectancy with some dating back nearly a century to the era of the Ford Model T and 2-cent stamp.

When last year’s historic drought and searing 100-degree temperatures put added pressure on the city’s aging infrastructure, it sprouted 11,000 leaks. Some of these ruptured pipes gushed for days and weeks.

The city lost or could not account for 19 percent of its water in the 2011 fiscal year that ended in June. That amount escalated in September and October of last year when about one-fourth of the city’s water was being lost, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle showed.

“We don’t need that much water running down a rat hole,” said Dale Thompson, a Houston engineer who has served on several water district boards. “For instance, I saw crews patch the same short stretch of Gessner near my home about five or six times this past year.”

[…]

According to recently released city records, about 40 percent, or 3,000 miles, of the pipelines winding through Houston have already been used longer than 50 years – which industry experts say is the average life expectancy for a pipe.

The city has no idea of the exact age of the bulk of these pipes – except that they are well past their prime.

A third of the city’s pipelines – some 2,500 miles – had their date of installation accidentally omitted when handwritten data was converted to new records about 50 or 60 years ago, authorities said.

Houston is not the only community reaching a critical juncture where it needs to replace aging infrastructure inherited from previous generations. The American Water Works Association released a report this year that warns $1 trillion will be needed to replace America’s aging pipelines over the next 25 years.

Ari Copeland, a water engineer with the association, said municipal governments don’t want to deal with the high cost of digging up and replacing these old lines. “Some in New England date to the 1800s and are still made of wood,” Copeland said.

That Trib story from last week about conserving water discussed fixing broken pipes as part of the overall picture. The reason municipalities don’t like having to deal with this is because of the large capital costs. It’s truly unfortunate that a few billion dollars to begin to address this issue wasn’t part of the original stimulus package of 2009 and hasn’t been seriously discussed since then, but there’s nothing we can do about that now. What we can do in Texas is insist that there be a provision for helping cities pay for repairs and improvements to their water infrastructure as part of the state’s overall water plan. Losing water needlessly like this costs everybody.

Recycling water

The Trib continues its look at the present and future of water use in Texas with a story about reclaiming wastewater.

“Reclaimed water,” the term for cleaned-up wastewater that gets reused, currently provides a little less than 3 percent of Texas’ water supply, often for purposes like irrigating golf courses. The figure is projected to rise to 10 percent by 2060, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

Reclaimed water “is a way to stretch our existing supplies and potentially avoid expensive infrastructure projects,” said Myron Hess, the manager of the Texas water program for the National Wildlife Federation. Putting potable water on grass is especially wasteful, environmentalists say.

When cities do not “reclaim” their wastewater, which is also called effluent, it generally gets dumped into creeks and rivers. Austin, for example, puts its effluent into the Colorado River, and wastewater from Dallas goes into the Trinity River (which ultimately helps supply water to Houston).

To some degree, Texas has been a leader on reclaimed water. The San Antonio Water System boasts of having the “nation’s largest recycled water system.” Some of that recycled water flows down the San Antonio River, at the heart of the city’s popular River Walk, and some goes to golf courses, parks or industry.

El Paso, the driest major city in Texas, built a pioneering project in the mid-1980s that injects treated wastewater into the Hueco Bolson aquifer, where it swirls around and mingles with existing supplies before eventually being pumped back up for chlorination and drinking. (The local water utility estimates that it takes more than two years before water comes back up after being sent into the aquifer.)

No point being squeamish about it. One way or another, it all eventually finds its way back to your water supply. For things like irrigation or some industrial uses, there’s no need for the water to come from the same source that feeds your kitchen tap. It makes all kinds of sense for water utilities to think in these terms. You can do something like this yourself on a small scale with a rain barrel or other clever ideas. It’s a lot easier than you think to use less and make the most of the water you have.

Desalinization and power plants

The Trib has another story about desalinization in Texas, and reading it brings up a point that I don’t think gets enough attention.

KBH Desalinization Facility

Interest in desalination surged more than a decade ago, when the technology became more efficient and cost-competitive, according to Jorge Arroyo, a desalination specialist with the Texas Water Development Board. But the severe drought of the past two years has triggered extra calls to his office. Texas holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater — which translates to roughly 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually — in addition to some brackish surface water. The state water plan finalized this year envisions Texas deriving 3.4 percent of its water supply from desalination in 2060. (It is less than 1 percent now.)

Environmentalists argue that desalination is not a silver bullet because it is energy-intensive and requires disposal of the concentrated salts in a way that avoids contaminating fresh water. Texas should first focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Amy Hardberger, a water specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“What needs to be avoided is the, ‘Oh, we’ll just get more’ mentality,” she said.

But getting more is what many Texans want. Odessa, which draws water from dangerously low surface reservoirs, is considering a desalination plant that could ultimately become bigger than the one in El Paso. (Odessa’s deadline for proposals is next week.)

Separately, a planned power plant near Odessa is studying prices for the technology. John Ragan, the head of Texas operations for NRG Energy, envisions natural gas power plants along the coast that desalinate water overnight when they are not needed for electricity. Residents near the half-full Highland Lakes in Central Texas say that desalination could reduce the water-supply burden on the lakes. Texas Tech University aims to begin wind-powered desalination research later this year, in the West Texas town of Seminole.

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water. Natural gas plants use a lot less than coal plants, though they still use a lot. Renewable energy – wind and solar – pretty much don’t need water at all. See this Texas Water Development Board report about power generation and water usage through the year 2060 for more. Desalinization needs to be part of the mix in Texas – we have more than enough brackish water to supply the entire state – but desalinization requires a lot of power, and power generation, at least as we do it today, requires a lot of water. Everybody understands that greenhouse gas and climate change implications of renewable energy versus coal and gas, but the water use implications are as important. The more we invest in renewable energy the better off we’ll be in more ways than we might think.

It sure would be nice if The Lege would do something about the drought

Don’t count on it, though.

Most of Texas has emerged from its driest year on record, but the turn in weather likely will dampen legislative interest in the state’s water supply.

Water planners, policy experts and scientists said Monday at the Texas Water Summit that they do not expect lawmakers to address increasing water demands when they convene in January because the most populated areas no longer are in severe drought.

[…]

In 2011 alone, the state lost 100 cubic kilometers of water, or 70 Lake Travises, because of evaporation, said David Maidment, director of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

That, however, was not dry enough for lawmakers to find a way to fund water development beyond asking voters for authority to issue debt through bonds. The state’s water plan calls for a $3 billion investment in more reservoirs, desalination plants and pipelines, among other projects, to avoid shortages during the next 50 years.

“The challenge is to convince ratepayers and politicians that it is worth the cost,” said Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for water science and conservation at the Texas Water Development Board. “A lot of Texans take it for granted that water comes out of the faucet.”

Here’s a reminder about the state’s long term water plan. The story says that per capita water capacity peaked in the 1970s after several reservoirs were built and have declined since then. A multi-year drought like the one we had in the 1950s that spurred the construction of those new reservoirs, would be devastating. The fact that we’ve had a good amount of rain so far this year doesn’t mean we’re out of danger for that. There was a bill to deal with this in the Lege last year, but it involved imposing a fee to raise the money for the capital projects, and that never went anywhere. If the drought has mostly eased by next year, it seems unlikely that there will be any sense of urgency on this; certainly, with Rick Perry pushing budget suicide pact, it’s hard to see where the leadership to undertake something like this will come from. If drought conditions have worsened by then…boy, I don’t even want to think about that. The TM Daily Post has more.

The state of water in Texas

The Statesman has a long story about the state of water in Texas and its outlook for the future. Short summary: We’re going to need more than what we’re capable of getting now, and it’s going to cost a lot of money to bridge the shortfall.

2012 State Water Plan

“For most of our recent history, we just treated (water) as if we had an unlimited supply of it. We’re finding to our dismay that that’s not true,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University.

One clear indication that Texans need to rethink how they value water came when the state asked for $53 billion in improvements to prepare the state for a record-breaking drought in the next 50 years.

The cheapest strategy in the Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 water plan is conservation, which would account for 24 percent of the new supply by 2060; the costliest, desalination, would account for about 3.4 percent of the new supply.

But the prospect of a future crisis doesn’t necessarily make consumers more willing to open their wallets.

“It can be hard to convince ratepayers that they need to pay more money to get that security in their supply,” said Robert Mace, the board’s deputy executive administrator for water science and conversation.

It may come as little surprise, then, that lawmakers have failed to ensure sustainable funding for the water plan.

“I don’t think there’s been a greater dereliction of duty” than failing to fund Texas water needs, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas , said Jan. 10 in a Business and Commerce Committee hearing, where lawmakers were told that a dwindling water supply can also affect the state power grid, as most energy production relies heavily on water to cool power plants.

You can find the 2012 State Water Plan here if you want a little light reading for your bedside table. We’ve talked about a lot of this stuff before as well – conservation, desalinization, reuse and recycling, infrastructure, and so forth. I’ll refer you again to the Drop By Drop and Sprayed Away reports, as well as the 2011 Regional Water Plan. I truly believe we need to be doing a lot more now to push conservation, because it’s not only the cheapest solution, it also buys us time for implementing the solutions that require capital investment. I strongly believe in tiering water prices in a way that rewards those who use less and charges a premium to those who use the most. I also believe in educating people about ways they can easily reduce their own water usage. One example is capturing rainwater for later use on gardens or lawns. You can buy a decent-sized rain barrel for $150 or less and use your sprinkler less. Every little bit helps, and if you want to avoid seeing future surcharges on your water bill, you’ll need to start thinking of what you can do. NewsTaco has some further reading.

Farmers really worried about the drought

No surprise, and there’s not really much that can be done right now, but if this year was bad for farmers, next year could well be worse.

Texas needs rain — and needs it quickly — to keep farmers and ranchers from suffering even bigger losses next year from the drought that already has left them with record-breaking losses this year, producers said Friday in San Antonio.

Corn growers in Texas could encounter even bigger losses in 2012 after seeing output fall by 40 percent this year; and rice plantings, which fell by only 2 percent this year, could be cut nearly in half if more water does not become available soon, officials said.

“It could drive us to acreage levels we’ve probably not seen in 80 years or more,” said Ronald Gertson, a Wharton-area rice farmer who was on a panel at the San Antonio International Farm & Ranch Show that was looking at the state’s water needs. “Without some serious rain in the next two months, we’re going to be at that 50 percent level.”

[…]

Agricultural irrigation uses about half of the water that is consumed in Texas annually, and about 80 percent of that comes from groundwater resources, said Ed Vaughan of Boerne, who chairs the Texas Water Development Board.

With the state’s population nearly doubling by 2060, Texas will need more water resources to meet all its agricultural, industrial and municipal needs, Vaughan said.

He and state Rep. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican who presented a legislative update at Friday’s symposium, said desalination of brackish water presents the best opportunity for increasing water supplies because brackish water projects can be completed faster and for less money than other options.

With forecasters saying the drought may not break until mid-2013 — and that the next 15 years could be drier than normal — the state has to get serious about expanding its water supply or both agriculture and Texas’ industrial base will suffer, Larson said.

Which will cost money, lots of it, and as we have seen the Lege and our Republican leadership are not too keen on that. Maybe another year of bad times will change some minds about that, but you would think that it shouldn’t be necessary.

The Constitutional amendments

In addition to all of the local races that will be on your ballot next month, there are ten Constitutional amendments up for ratification. Unlike some previous years, and somewhat surprisingly given the divisive and ideological nature of the session, there are no particularly high profile or controversial measures on the ballot. (Proposition 2, which authorizes the Texas Water Development Board to lend $6 billion via a bond fund dedicated to building and fixing water infrastructure, drawn btoh support and opposition.) If you want to know more about the referenda, and this includes me as I’ve spent approximately zero time thinking about them, State Sen. Kirk Watson and State Rep. Scott Hochberg have you covered. This Chron story has more detailed information about Props 2 and 8, both of which relate to water. Happy reading!

Our long term water plan

We’re in deep trouble if things continue as they are.

Every five years, the Texas Water Development Board publishes a water plan for the state. The 295-page draft of the 2012 plan, published last week in the midst of the worst-ever single-year drought Texas has ever experienced, is a sobering read.

“The primary message of the 2012 state water plan is a simple one,” the introduction states. “In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, and its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”

The report is packed with data and projections, but a few stand out. The state population, now 25 million, is expected to increase to 46 million by 2060. During that time, existing water supplies will fall 10 percent as the Ogallala and other aquifers are depleted.

If Texas does not plan ahead, a drought as bad as that of the 1950s could cost Texans $116 billion a year by 2060, the report says, and cause the potential loss of more than one million jobs.

Building new reservoirs and wastewater treatment plants and other water infrastructure is projected to cost $53 billion.

You may recall that this is the plan for which no money has been budgeted by the Lege. Feeling thirsty yet?

Couple things to note. One is that the main danger in making such long term projections is that you have no way to know if whatever growth rate you’re assuming for things will hold true. To go from 25 million people today to 46 million people in 50 years is an annual growth rate of 1.23%, which is considerably less than the 1.89% annual rate we saw from 2000 to 2010 but still more than the 0.93% rate for the US as a whole from that same period. Any number of things could change that rate one way or the other, and if so it could have a sizable effect on the 2060 population. There’s a reason these estimates and plans get updated periodically.

Conservation is mentioned throughout the report as a necessary strategy, with different regions having different levels of urgency. In places like the Panhandle, conservation is upwards of 80% of the 2060 strategy volumes; in other areas, it’s 20% or less, or even not explicitly mentioned in the highlights. In addition to conservation, new reservoirs, water reuse, and desalinization are all in the mix. It’s a big document and you might not understand all the technical terms – I sure didn’t – but take a look and you’ll get the general idea. And consider mentioning to your State Rep and State Senator that maybe thinking about all this, and how to pay for it, is a good idea.

No funding for long term water needs

We know what we need to do, we just don’t want to pay for it.

On paper, at least, Texas is well-prepared to meet the water needs of its rapidly expanding population — even when Mother Nature lays down a harsh and lengthy drought.

The price tag on the plan: $53 billion. State money allocated: $1.4 billion.

If there were funds, Texas would be able to build the dams, reservoirs, pipelines, wells and other infrastructure that would ideally avoid tight water-use restrictions imposed on residents, farmers and ranchers during times of drought while also guaranteeing there would be enough water for the state’s rapidly growing population — even in 2060.

Instead, now, more than four years after the latest blueprint was published, deadlines have passed with some work barely begun, and many projects never started. Meanwhile, lakes are shrinking, rivers are drying up and temperatures are rising.

“The longer you delay implementation, the costs are going to go up,” said Carolyn Brittin, a planning official at the Texas Water Development Board, which must publish a revised plan by January.

The Lege, of course, failed to do anything about this. As Forrest Wilder wrote back in May, there was a bill in place, there just wasn’t enough support for it.

Even as an historical drought grips the whole state, a measure to pump money into the underfunded state water plan has failed at the Texas Legislature. Rep. Allan Ritter, a Democrat-turned-Republican from rainy Southeast Texas, said the legislation died in the Calendars Committee because it included new fees unacceptable to the Republican supermajority in the House.

“We’re fighting so many fiscal battles,” Ritter said. “I just can’t get the members to lock onto it.”

Ritter’s idea was to finally come up with a permanent source of funding for a backlog of water-supply projects contemplated by the state water plan. By 2060, it’s estimated that Texas will need to spend $52 billion to avoid water shortages. But Ritter’s approach, consisting of two funding sources, never had a chance.

One, he wanted to impose a new monthly “tap fee” on people and businesses – an extra $1 per month for residential water bills. Two, he wanted to take $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, a much-abused pot of money that was supposed to help poor people pay for their utility bills. Now it mostly just sits in an account to help the Legislature balance the budget.

The proposed changes would’ve been put to the voters in November as a proposed constitutional amendment. The money would’ve helped finance hundreds of proposed projects, including new reservoirs, water conservation efforts, pipelines, and desalination.

I disagree with raiding the System Benefit Fund, but that sort of chicanery was par for the course this session. Is there anyone out there who thinks Ritter’s plan would not have been ratified by the voters? Is there anyone who thinks that if the Lege knew then what it knows now about how bad this drought would be that they wouldn’t have taken this more seriously? Nothing like looming catastrophe to focus the mind, I guess. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the next Lege will finally tackle this.

Austin braces for job losses

Ready or not, here they come.

The Texas Education Agency said Tuesday that it is laying off 178 employees this week. Those are among the first of thousands of state government layoffs expected in the coming weeks.

The TEA decision has been months in the making, as the agency seeks to reduce its staff by 32 percent to cope with budget cuts ordered by the Texas Legislature, an agency spokeswoman said.

This week’s layoffs come on the heels of 91 layoffs by the agency in February, with another 74 people retiring, quitting or transferring this year.

At the start of the legislative session in January, lawmakers proposed a 2012-13 budget that a Legislative Budget Board analysis said would cut 9,600 positions statewide in an attempt to balance a budget that spends 8 percent less than the current one. By the time the Legislature passed a budget in late May, the board estimated that 5,700 state government jobs would be lost, a 2.4 percent reduction from 2011 to 2013.

[…]

Two weeks ago, the Texas Water Development Board, a state agency that does long-term water planning, laid off 39 workers and eliminated an additional 28 jobs, said spokeswoman Merry Klonower. Almost all of the cuts are being made to the staff in Austin.

The board, which employs more than 300 people, is facing $16.8 million in cuts, a 30 percent reduction in its budget.

The workers received one month of severance pay.

In late June, the 3,000-employee Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced more than 100 layoffs as the agency faces a 21 percent budget cut. About half of the layoffs are being done in Austin. The employees also are receiving 45 days of severance pay.

All this comes on the heels of some non-robust job numbers in the year ending in May. The report for the current quarter ought to be interesting. So I’m just curious about something: If a poor jobs report were to be added to the poor poll numbers in Iowa and Texas, and someone were to eventually notice that one of the organizers of his upcoming Prayerapalooza hates the Statue of Liberty (which, let’s be honest, would already have the right-wing rage machine in full nuclear meltdown by now if there were any Democrats involved), do you think that maybe the national media might start to think that perhaps Rick Perry isn’t all that and a bag of chips?

“Sprayed Away”

A couple of months ago, I blogged about a report on water conservation from the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Last week, they came out with a new report, on outdoor water usage and how the demands of summertime increase water consumption in 18 Texas cities, mostly due to things like watering the lawn. From the report:

The report calculates that if these 18 cities achieved just a twenty-five percent reduction in outdoor water use, they could save, collectively, an average of 147 million gallons every day during the summer. The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that about half of the water we use on our landscapes is wasted due to overwatering or runoff. Reducing summer peak usage can also save millions of dollars in treatment costs.

“The potential for easy savings during the summertime is simply staggering,”said Lacey McCormick, Communications Manager with the National Wildlife Federation. “We can have attractive landscapes without watering during the heat of the day, watering our lawns three times a week, or running our sprinklers during the rain. There’s a big opportunity here to save money while protecting our supplies of drinking water.”

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The report recommends seven efficiency measures that have a proven track report at reducing landscaping water use. The measures include:

Improving Automatic Irrigation Systems: Irrigation systems are becoming increasingly common in Texas. The American Water Works Association estimates that homes with in-ground irrigation systems use 35% more water than homes without irrigation systems. Many of these systems are not designed or installed correctly-staff at the Austin Water Utility report water waste of 20% to 50% from poor system design. The report recommends that cities should take steps to make sure that these systems are as efficient as possible by offering free system audits and rebates on upgrades such as rain sensors.

Rethinking the Lawn: Over the past five years, permits for close to 600,000 new single family homes have been issued in Texas. Decisions made today about the types of lawns and landscapes to install in new developments have the potential to influence water use for decades to come. Smaller areas of turfgrass and the use of drought-resistant grasses can make a big contribution to reducing water use. Unfortunately, with only a few notable exceptions, Texas cities are currently doing little to guide new developments in this way.

Landscaping Rebates: Cities across the country have created programs paying customers to replace their turfgrass with more water-efficient landscaping. These programs are becoming more common in Texas, with entities such as the City of Pflugerville, San Antonio Water System and BexarMet Water District offering rebate programs. To ensure that customers learn new watering habits, the report recommends that utilities should make payment of rebates contingent on customers actually reducing their water use.

Rainwater Harvesting: Capturing rainwater has real potential as a source of water for Texas. A report published by the Texas Water Development Board estimated that a metropolitan area the size of Dallas could capture roughly 2 billion gallons of water annually if just 10 percent of the roof area was used to harvest rainwater. Although several Texas cities currently offer rebates on rain barrels, this source of water is currently seriously underutilized.

Rate Structures: A strongly tiered rate structure is the most equitable way to price water. Most residential customers use limited amounts of water, placing smaller demands on the system, and should pay less per unit of water as a result. For example, the San Antonio Water System has found that about 80% of their residential customers do not see any significant rise in their bills during the summertime. This indicates that the 30% bump in total water use that San Antonio sees during the summertime is primarily caused by a small portion of the utility’s customers. However, heavy users in most cities usually pay little more-and often less-per thousand gallons than frugal water users.

The full report is here (PDF), and it’s worth your time to read. Remember that regardless of what a city’s average daily water usage is, it has to build infrastructure – treatment plants, pipelines, etc – based on peak usage. Shaving even a bit off that peak can mean the difference between having to spent millions to build and operate another plant, or having to build a larger and more expensive plant, and not having to do so. A little bit of conservation can mean a lot of savings.

Here in Houston, where we are blessed/cursed with generally abundant rainfall, our summer usage only increases by about 14% over winter. Of course, our water rates just went up by 30%, so the potential for savings here is just as great. And on an absolute scale, even though Houston’s consumption rate only increases a little, our total usage increase is among the highest just because we have the most people. As such, if we all trimmed back a bit, the cumulative effect would be large.