Texas releases draft 2012 State Water Plan

By Michael Clark - 20 Oct 2011 22:39:46 GMT
Texas releases draft 2012 State Water Plan

Texas Water Plan via Shutterstock

Everything is big in Texas, including the recently released draft 2012 State Water Plan, which calls for $53.1b in infrastructure and water management projects that, all told, would result in 9m acre per year of additional water by 2060 This is not an insignificant amount of water. It is more water than the combined annual withdrawal from the Colorado River by California, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. The plan, which is released every five years and is an amalgamation of sorts of sixteen regional plans, will likely be heavily scrutinized what with the devastating drought afflicting the state that has made clear the vulnerability of the water supply. The Chairman of the Texas Water Management Board, who pull together the plan, writes that the primary message of this plan is: "In serious drought conditions,Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises." It is emphasized that not implementing the plan could have dire economic consequences: annual economic losses could soar to $116b and a million jobs could be lost.

The importance of this plan is apparent in Texas, but it is equally important from a national perspective. With a 2010 GPD of $1.2t, Texas is the second largest economy in the US, behind California. Economic devastation in Texas could ripple through the national economy. Also, some folks, particularly Westerners, are beginning to have a look at Governor Perry's record on water management, an issue near and dear to their hearts, and how that record may indicate his actions whilst serving as President. Whether or not this is a deciding factor remains to be seen since it's a bit like comparing apples to oranges: Perry oversaw arid and huge Texas, while Romney, his likely foe, oversaw wet and small Massachusetts.

The Environmental Defense Fund has been critical of the plan, saying it's littered with 'expensive and antiquated' solutions, mostly of the supply augmentation sort, suffering from a dearth of water conservation and efficiency project, and the implementation costs have doubled since the 2007 plan. The Texas Sierra Club agrees: water conservation needs to play a much larger role. But they also point out something more critical, namely the need to incorporate water use associated with hydrofracking, a big industry in Texas, in the planning process, an issue which the plan acknowledges. The drought revealed a problem with current law. Hydrofracking wells are exempt from many of the regulations that govern water supply wells, including water use reporting requirements. Regulators trying to reign in use were unable to cap water use at hydrofracking wells. And some public suppliers, including the town of Midland, cut off or reduced water supply to drilling operators.

The EDF's critique of the plan - that it's overburdened with 'expensive and antiquated' solutions - is related to the preponderance of new reservoirs and pipelines included in it. The plan calls for, perhaps implausibly, the construction of twenty-six new reservoirs and some big pipeline projects. The environmental impacts, not to mention to permitting process, could be project killers.

If all were built, the twenty-six new reservoirs would supply 1.5m acre feet per year, which constitutes just under 17% of the total recommended additional water supply by 2060. To put this in context, this is over double the capacity of Lake Havasu, on the Colorado River. The environmental impact could be significant; reservoirs typically require the construction of dams on rivers or streams and the flooding of sometimes critical habitat area.

But the big question is: where's the money? Since the 2007 plan, which called for projects that would result in the same additional water supply - 9m acre feet - the cost of implementation has nearly doubled, from $31b to $53b. Though it acknowledges existing financing channels, the plan calls for the a "long term, affordable, and sustainable method to provide financial assistance for the implementation of state water plan project." As federal funding continues to dwindle, designing this method will be fall on the state's shoulders. In 2007, it was estimated that $2.1b was needed from the TWSB; that number has climbed to $17b.

And the money just isn't there. In 2009, $1.47b was appropriated for water projects. Last year, a measly $100m was set aside for water projects. The TWSB has also helped finance projects with federal funds and through state bond sales. To date, these mechanisms have provided $500m in financing, still a paltry sum in consideration of $53b needed to implement the plan and the massive $231b needed for other water and wastewater projects.

Not all is lost. Proposition 2, which would allow the TWSB to issue $6b in bonds for water projects, is up for a vote in November. Business and environmental groups are behind it. Some, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, don't support the measure because of its 'evergreen' provision which will allow the TWSB to have $6b loaned out any anytime instead of capping spending at $6b. This, supporter say is exactly why the evergreen provision is needed: it is critical in providing a sustainable, long term financing mechanism for water projects, as called for in the plan.

The public comment period on the draft 2012 State Water Plan ends October 25. It will be hotly debated. Likely more critical, however, is the vote on Prop 2 on November 8. After all, the plan is nothing without money to implement it. Irregardless of the money, it begs the question: is the plan feasible? Is building twenty six new reservoirs a feasible solution? Is building large pipelines feasible? Or should the TWSB step back and look at the potential for water efficiency or alternative supplemental supply projects, like reuse, for playing a bigger role in the portfolio? These are issues Texas needs to figure out and quick. But the federal government shouldn't be reclining, sipping tea, and calmly observing. Rather, the folks in DC should be paying attention to the water issues. If they go unresolved, the repercussion could be felt far beyond the state's borders.

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