May 22, 2014

News052214bTom Hegemier, Central Texas Land Water Sustainability Forum

 Recent rainfall in Austin delivered more water to the Gulf, but little to lakes Travis and Buchanan, the area’s water supply reservoirs. With near average rainfall the last two years and the lakes continuing to fall, a historic flood or an extremely wet year is necessary to replenish central Texas water supplies and avoid the unthinkable.

Ongoing dry conditions could force LCRA in July to declare a new drought of record and require all customers to reduce water use by 20 percent. This would apply to Austin, Cedar Park, Leander, Lakeway, Pflugerville, power plants, and others that rely on Highland Lakes’ water. Communities that can document recent water savings will be slightly impacted while those without a conservation track record will need to make significant cuts in their water use.

Forecasts indicate persistent drought for two more years could place the region’s water supply in jeopardy, adversely affect spring and river flows and cripple recreational attractions. Without secure water supplies, jobs will leave the area, companies will no longer relocate to Austin, and the economy could be derailed for years.

Texas voters approved the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) last year and the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) mobilized a process to approve new water supply projects by 2016. These projects can take more than two years to complete and while 20 percent of the funds are earmarked for conservation, it will take time to realize significant water savings. If drought persists, it is obvious that SWIFT will move too slowly to avoid a 2016 water crisis.

A drought of record declaration will shrink water usage but much more is required to rapidly and significantly reduce demands from each new home and business. An immediate first step is to incentivize conservation landscaping, stormwater reuse, and in-door conservation measures in land development.

Another action item is to change State rules to promote gray water use, rainwater harvesting, and wastewater reuse to eliminate excessive red tape, encourage individual use, and lower costs. With the stroke of a pen, new water possibilities are available for all.

While the above reduces demands, new supplies are also needed to weather the drought. Some recommend conveying groundwater from distant aquifers, but does Texas want to follow California, wheeling water around the state, often to the detriment of the natural resources and consuming nearly 20 percent of the state’s energy? What are the rate impacts of such a plan that could take years to build?

Others suggest dumping treated wastewater into Lake Travis, but studies indicate adverse water quality impacts to the clearest lake in Texas. Using the effluent where it is generated would be wiser and reduce demands with little evaporation. Many believe dredging lakes Travis and Buchanan is attractive, however, dirt dug from the exposed lake bed today will not provide water tomorrow if the drought continues.

Instead, projects are needed on-line by 2016 that generate water supplies upon completion. These include brackish groundwater desalination as SAWS is doing, aquifer storage and recovery similar to Kerrville, direct potable reuse of effluent as Wichita Falls and Big Spring, expanding wastewater reuse as Austin, LCRA’s local groundwater development in Bastrop, and repairing leaking water systems. Many small projects are necessary to work within the drought timeline to meet the geographically distant water needs. It could even involve water providers connecting adjacent systems to link diverse supplies. But the effort must begin now.

To accomplish drought security, Austin and the surrounding communities must work as partners to slash water demands and develop local sustainable long-term supplies. The recently formed Austin Water Resource Planning Task Force is charged with creating water supply recommendations by late June. While the timeline is short, they have the opportunity to endorse water supply measures that can protect Austin’s economy, manage water rates, investigate creative financing, and protect the areas’ natural resources.

Tom Hegemier is a senior water resources engineer at RPS and the chair of the Central Texas Land Water Sustainability Forum.