When politics turns to water ... an analysis
Darrell T. Brownlow, Ph.D.
October 16, 2013 | 1715 views | 7 comments
A friend asked me the other day if I was excited about voting for Proposition 6, the constitutional amendment authorizing the use of $2 billion from the “Rainy Day Fund” for developing water projects across the state.
I, like my friend, have heard the politicians applauding themselves for doing such a great job in passing this “historic” legislation and working to ensure Texas has the water it needs to continue its dynamic growth.
While I am not against expanding the state’s role in funding water projects to help thirsty children, I think I’ll pass on being part of the cheering section for passing this amendment.
I guess it’s simply hard for me to reconcile how, after 15 years of water planning, Texas has not really done one thing to produce more water for areas that need it. In the midst of the second or third multi-year drought this decade, the Legislature needs to appear as though it’s doing something. What do politicians do better than anything else?
Yes, they spend other people’s money. Having been a direct participant in the production of three Regional Water Plans (2002, 2007, and 2012), all of which included dozens of projects and accounting for tens of thousands of pages of documents produced via thousands of hours of consultants’ time, I don’t ever recall money or the lack thereof as being the reason a water project was not done.
I don’t recall a headline saying “water project ready, but no money.” To the contrary, behind the scenes, some consultants and planning participants often characterized Regional Water Planning as being a process where good projects go to die and bad projects become “place holders.” I don’t want to give the impression that water planning is or was bad.
A lot of interesting data is generated and a great deal of public discourse can be had about water usage. But the fact is, if you need water for anything other than long-term considerations, regional water planning is not the way to do it. Unfortunately, over time, long term becomes short term and again, regional planning does not work well on short-term issues.
Again, who can be against spending “Rainy Day Fund” money on projects identified in the State Water Plan? Well, it might help to have more details.
Have you heard any politician provide details about what exactly is in the State Water Plan? Besides the obvious ideas like conservation measures and recycling, what actual water supply projects are they specifically talking about funding? Out of the hundreds of projects with a cumulative $30 billion estimated cost, which projects identified in the 2012 State Water Plan might be funded? To get some idea of this, let’s examine some supply versus demand details within the 2012 South Central Texas Region, which includes San Antonio, Bexar County, and 19 surrounding counties.
First, let’s examine the projected “needs” for water. Of the six “water user” groups for which water use is divided into, by a large margin, new supplies of water are needed for increasing “municipal” demands. The plan states that at projected growth levels, by 2050 this region will need to increase its “municipal” water supply by about 50 percent over what is currently available.
This region currently uses slightly less than 400,000 acre-feet of water each year and will need slightly less than 600,000 acre-feet per year by 2050, which is a “need” of over 200,000 acre-feet of “new” water.
The vast majority of this new water is for San Antonio and the I‐35 corridor counties. With increasing municipal demands come increasing water demands for both industrial and steam-electric uses, but those demands are much smaller. Particularly with steam-electric, these can be supplied for as a result of the increased wastewater generated by any new supplies created for the increased municipal demands.
But what about water for agriculture and livestock? Actually, the 2012 State Water Plan for South Central Texas shows that ample water is available for Livestock use out through 2060. And as for agricultural irrigation, which is the second largest water demand in the region behind municipal, the 2012 water plan actually projects a dramatic increase in water availability for irrigation out through 2060.
In fact, the plan shows an “irrigation” surplus that increases to nearly 75,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2060. That alone represents almost 40 percent of the projected new demand required for municipal water.
Since most of the agricultural irrigation water is groundwater coming primarily from aquifers in the rural areas surrounding the large municipal centers, it is important to consider that not only does the Plan identify this “surplus” of irrigation water, it also characterizes approximately 140,000 acre-feet per year of additional groundwater as “unallocated,” which implies “available.”
Summing the surplus of irrigation supply with the unallocated groundwater, the State Water Plan for this region shows that while approximately 200,000 acre-feet per year of new municipal supply is needed for the region by 2050, more than 215,000 acre-feet per year of surplus irrigation and unallocated groundwater will exist by 2050. (See chart, page 2D).
Not all water is equal
In Texas, there are two types of water:
1) surface water, which is the water in our lakes and rivers and the use of which is entirely controlled by both the state of Texas and the federal government; and
2) groundwater, which as the Texas Supreme Court holds, belongs to the property owner but is subject to some regulation by local groundwater districts.
For all practical purposes, the water in our existing lakes and rivers (surface water) is already accounted for in the planning. Basically, the supply of surface water is used up, and any attempt to build new lakes to increase the supply or simply take more water from the rivers is met with lawsuits by the environmental interests as well as rural residents fearful of condemnation of private lands for new reservoirs.
This places the focus of water planning squarely on groundwater -- and where is the groundwater?
Yep, the rural areas where small communities and agricultural interests rely on the water. And the 2012 Regional Plan basically says, the ranchers have plenty of water for their cattle, the farmers will be using much less than they have, and the groundwater districts are reporting large amounts of unallocated groundwater.
In summary, it’s hard not to conclude that the new funding for water projects is not simply “free money” to help the big municipalities wrestle groundwater away from the rural interests.
In supporting Proposition 6, it’s important to the rural and agricultural interests to fully understand the details and not be swooned by promises of proportionally small subsidies and reservations of monies for conservation measures.
The rural and agricultural interests have the water; why would they need the money? I suppose one could argue that supporting the municipalities in their efforts to secure funding for new water supplies will help take pressure off the rural groundwater supplies.
Wrong. Have you read the State Water Plan? The plan is to take -- or buy -- the rural water.
See Part II next week.
Darrell Brownlow is a geologist with a Ph.D. from Texas Tech University. From 1999 to 2012, he was a small business representative to the South Central Texas Regional Water Planning group and from 2001‐11, he was Gov. Perry’s appointee to the Evergreen Groundwater Conservation District. He currently serves as an elected director on thebBoard of the San Antonio River Authority. He is a rancher and landowner in Wilson and LaSalle counties.
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