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Texas Water News Roundup | January & February 2016

Submitted by Sean Hennigan on Mon, 02/29/2016 - 12:37pm

Statewide: Last year, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) officially announced that the four-year drought affecting the state was over. However, as 2016 begins, the state still has a long way to go to reach pre-drought conditions. According to scientists at the University of Texas, the state's reservoirs are short over 75 million acre-feet—roughly three times the size of Lake Mead, the nation's largest human-made reservoir. To put it another way, the deficit represents nearly five years' worth of water use for the entire state. The report serves as a reminder that despite improving conditions across the state, our state's water resources are still far from secure. Read more here.

While the influence of a powerful El Niño saw much of the state recovering from a severe drought over the past year, new evidence from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that the reprieve may have been temporary. As of mid-February, nearly 45 percent of the state is in “moderate drought” or is “abnormally dry,” compared to only 12 percent at the beginning of the month. While more rain is expected in coming months, the report is a sobering reminder of the fragility of our state’s water situation. You can read more on the story here.

After five years of acrimony between the U.S. and Mexico over water debt from the Rio Grande, Mexico has finally paid off its 263,000 acre-foot debt to the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC). Under a 1944 water treaty between the United States and Mexico, the former is entitled to a third of the water flowing down the Rio Grande. However, Mexico fell short on its delivery over the five year cycle ending in 2015, a period that coincided with extensive drought on both sides of the border. The debt was paid off on Jan. 25, 2016, which, in the words of IBWC Commissioner Edward Drusina, exemplifies “the cooperation that now exists between the United States and Mexico to address the water needs of both countries.” You can read more on the story here.

Region C – While recent national news has rightly focused on the Flint water crisis in Michigan, another community closer to home is facing many of the same issues, and has been for over three decades. A recent article in Texas Monthly highlights the plight of Sand Branch, an unincorporated community southeast of Dallas. Because of its unincorporated status, Sand Branch cannot receive municipal water from the nearby Metroplex, and for many years had to make do with wells drilled by homeowners. Now, mining and industrial activity in the area have contaminated most of those wells, and residents are forced to buy drinking water from nearby communities with access to clean water. The community has faced many water challenges, including a 1985 proposed grant to develop infrastructure in the community that was voted down by the Dallas city council. To further complicate the matter, the mean monthly income in the community is $721 per month, meaning that most community members are unable to move to another town. Sand Branch has been called a “non-border colonia” by the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service because of its lack of access to basic necessities like water and sewage. You can read more on the story here.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is auctioning off about 250 acres around Lewisville Lake for natural gas exploration. However, many local communities are concerned about the possibility of gas drilling under a body of water upon which many rely for drinking water. Complicating things further is the fact that the dam impounding the lake has been cited by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as being in “hazardous condition.” While the correlation between natural gas drilling and water contamination, as well as the seismic effects of drilling, are still not clearly understood, the director of Dallas Water Utilities has made clear that the sale represents “an unacceptable level of risk.” Ed Ireland, director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, says that extensive gas drilling, even near Lake Lewisville itself, has displayed no evidence of danger to locals, either through seismic activity or drinking water contamination. Nevertheless, municipalities and environmental groups are asking the BLM to postpone the auction and commission a study on the environmental effects of the potential well sites. The BLM, meanwhile, has withdrawn over 31,000 acres of national forest land in East Texas, which were also slated for fossil fuel exploration. You can read more on the story here.

Region G - On January 20th, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality signaled their approval of a “novel” and controversial plan by the Brazos River Authority to operate all twelve of its reservoirs as a single system, somewhat similar, on a smaller scale, to the “water grid” proposed by a Texas House member during the 2015 regular legislative session. The plan, which is still open to revision before final approval, would increase the total amount of water in the system by about a million acre-feet of water, provided by “return flows,” or water that returns to the Brazos river after use. However, the plan has detractors, even among the state Legislature, due to the unpredictability of water availability in the Brazos River system. Some ranchers also worry that water already allocated to agricultural users will end up going to the Brazos River Authority for resale to other user groups. The plan still has to go before a panel of judges to address county commissioners' concerns, but may end up being a case study in river system-wide water management. You can read more on the story here.

In February, a court case over water rights in the Brazos River basin came to a close, as the Texas Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of prior appropriation (colloquially known as “first in time, first in right”). The case began in 2012, when Dow Chemical asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to prioritize water rights for Dow’s Freeport chemical plant over junior right-holders. The TCEQ did so, but made exemptions for cities and power plants, an action that angered many farmers in the area who were not subject to the same exceptions. The decision by the state Supreme Court affirms that the TCEQ does not have the authority to depart from the doctrine of prior appropriation, whether for municipalities or for agricultural users. At the time of the decision, the point had become moot due to heavy rainfall in the basin, but the case has implications for other conflicts across the state—most notably in neighboring Region K, where rice farmers went without water from the Colorado River for several years, despite being senior rights-holders. You can read more about the decision here.

Region H: Starting January 1st, water users in Houston are seeing a rise in their water bills. The rate increase affects customers of the North Fort Bend Water Authority, which was created in 2005 to help transition the city's reliance from groundwater to surface water. Houston's historical reliance on groundwater led to widespread land subsidence (or sinking) in the last century, and the rate increases will help further reduce the city's reliance on water from the Gulf Coast Aquifer. The new rates, which amount to about three dollars per month more for the average user, will help fund two new water projects in the city totaling nearly two billion dollars: a new water purification plant and the construction of 39 miles of new pipelines to transport water throughout the Authority's user area. Significantly, about eighty percent of the cost of these projects will be funded through the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), through its State Water Implementation Fund. These projects will help the Houston metropolitan area achieve its goal of obtaining sixty percent of its water from surface sources by 2025. You can read more on the story here.

Region K: After four years of going without water from the Colorado River to irrigate their crops, rice farmers on the Gulf Coast will likely see water from the the Highland Lakes this year.  For the past four years, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has requested emergency drought orders from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, due to extreme drought conditions throughout the Colorado Basin. However, as of January 2016, the major Highland Lakes—Travis and Buchanan—are nearly 90 percent full, up from 35 percent only a year ago. If these conditions continue into the spring, the LCRA could release up to 202,000 acre-feet to farmers downstream, with another 76,000 acre-feet for the second crop in July. You can read more here.

Region L: An op-ed published on January 3rd addresses one of the most important issues facing Texas water managers in the coming decades: the nexus between water and agriculture. Bill Barker, board member of imagineSanAntonio, outlines the interdependence between agricultural water users in the western part of the state (who account for over half of the state's annual water use) and consumers in urban areas like San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. The editorial focuses on Region L, which faces growing shortages of water for agriculture despite a rosier outlook for municipal water supplies. Nevertheless, the challenges highlighted in the piece—notably, the decline of water availability for farmers across Texas—are of statewide concern. You can read the piece here.

An historic dam near Luling, long slated for demolition due to its derelict condition and the impediment it presents to native fish migration, has finally been removed. Work to remove the Ottine dam, a concrete and steel dam on the San Marcos River, began over four years ago, but crews from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service completed the bulk of the work in January 2016. The removal of the dam will allow for revegetation of the riparian area and restoration of native wildlife habitat, as well as the improvement of recreational opportunities along the San Marcos, a popular location for canoeists and kayakers. Read more about the story here.

Regions L, K, & G – On February 2nd, legislators in the House Natural Resources Committee heard testimony from a wide range of landowners, environmental groups, water utilities, and more on the future of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, one of the state’s most important groundwater resources. Recently approved permits have allowed groups like the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and various private entities to pump a maximum of over 25 billion gallons per year from the aquifer. Permits currently under consideration could raise that amount substantially, effectively doubling the amount of water being taken from the Lost Pines and Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Districts, where much of the drilling is expected to occur. Hydrologists from SAWS say that the proposed drilling represents a sustainable withdrawal from the aquifer, but admit that water levels in some counties will probably decline as a result. The case will likely have far-reaching implications for the way water is distributed across the state, as committee members from both sides of the aisle have weighed in on the role of state government versus private enterprise to provide water to Texas communities. For more on this story, head here or here.

Upcoming TWDB Planning Meetings

(D) North East Texas

Wednesday, March 16, 2016: 1:00pm

Mount Pleasant Civic Center, 1800 North Jefferson Avenue, Mount Pleasant, Texas.

(E) Far West Texas

Thursday, April 7, 2016; 1:30 pm (MST)   

El Paso County Water Improvement District #1 headquarters, 13247 Alameda Ave, Clint, TX.

(K) Lower Colorado

Wednesday, April 13, 2016:10:00 am

Dalchau Service Center, 3505 Montopolis Drive, Austin, Tx.

(M) Rio Grande

Wednesday, March 9, 2016; 9:30 am

The next regular RWPG meeting will be held at the LRGVDC Transportation Center 510 S. Pleasantview Drive Weslaco, Texas.

(P) Lavaca

Monday, March 21, 2016; 1:30 pm

Lavaca Navidad River Authority Headquarters, 4631 FM 3131, Edna, Texas.