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Texas Slow to Prepare for Future Water Needs

Farmers, Ranchers Struggle As Texas Endures Historic Drought
Scott Olson, Getty Images

SANFORD, Texas — 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.

Globally, 7 billion people need water — 97 percent of which is salty and 2 percent is locked in ice. Of the rest, two-thirds is used to grow food.

The United States, and Texas in particular, need to find water for a growing population. Unusually high temperatures and dry weather recently have highlighted the urgency.

Three years of dry winters that started in 2008 left populous Southern California and the agriculturally rich Central Valley desperate. Officials could not deliver more than 50 percent of the water needed by cities and farmers. In the Midwest, water levels since the 1990s have dropped at times on Lakes Huron and Michigan, causing millions of dollars in losses. The arid Southwest has struggled for decades.

In Texas, which is experiencing one of its most severe droughts on record, officials know exactly what to do to guarantee water for future generations — in fact, Texas spends $16 million every five years to plan ahead.

When the most recent plan was published in 2007, officials estimated it would cost $31 billion to provide water to the population in 2060, said Dan Hardin, director of water resource planning at the water development board. That doesn’t include more than $140 billion needed for other water-related infrastructure, including flood control. In January, the board told the Legislature the cost had jumped to $53 billion.

Yet lawmakers, struggling with a $27 billion budget deficit, allocated only $100 million to water projects — enough, say, to build one small reservoir.

“Billions of dollars of ideas but no funding,” said Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy of Texas.

Local officials have said they have about $26 billion to fund the plan, but need state loans for the rest. Competition for loans — when they’re available — can be fierce.

The West Texas town of Robert Lee has struggled with water issues for so long it was unprepared for the current drought. Now, town officials are tapping private loans in a rush to build a $1.5 million pipeline to draw water from nearby Bronte, said Eddie Ray Roberts, the city’s water superintendent.

“It surprised me that they let it get this bad. It’s a funding issue,” Roberts said, explaining that the state won’t give communities money until January, when it flows in from Washington.

Meticulous planning was meant to prevent such scenarios, but planners know the list of untouched projects will long when the water board puts out its January report.

The region that includes Dallas and Fort Worth, for example, had 59 major projects recommended at a cost of more than $13 billion to provide water to a population that is expected to nearly double by 2060. Of those projects, 16 are in various stages of planning or completion, Hardin said. And the agency only knows about projects it funds, making it more difficult to track.

Water projects, especially reservoirs, have always been expensive. It cost $30 million in the mid-1960s — or what would be $227 million now — to create Lake Meredith in the Texas Panhandle. Today, the cost of a large reservoir could exceed $500 million. But sometimes other factors, including stringent environmental regulations and bureaucracy, can stymie a project.

In North Texas, the Lower Boisd’arc Reservoir project has half the land it needs. Planners hope to have the lake operational by 2020. But the permitting and legal obstacles could delay it.

North of Houston, opposition from residents has stopped, for now, a reservoir meant to supply water to the city and its suburbs, where nearly a quarter of Texans live and the population is booming. Here, planners recommended 121 projects. Seven are in development, Hardin said.

“I don’t think there’s this sense that there’s a problem down the line, and I think that is the biggest challenge: change the mindset not only of our citizens, but of our leaders,” said Larry Soward, a water expert who formerly served as a commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, which serves residents in some of the state’s most arid terrain, is one of the few agencies that has implemented — and independently funded — its entire plan.

Lake Meredith, the source for nearly 80 percent of the area’s water, didn’t live up to expectations from the start. It only once reached full capacity, and the water quality was poor. Still, for about 40 years, the authority met most of its water needs by pumping the reservoir, while residents spent summers enjoying the canyon-like vista and launching boats from a marina.

In the past decade, the region has experienced several intense droughts. And Lake Meredith, which was supposed to serve residents for 150 years, began rapidly drying up. This year, the lake is barely 30 feet deep. If the drought and heat continue, just 15 feet could be left next summer.

Kent Satterwhite, general manager of the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, believes one good rainy season could reverse that. The National Park Service does not share his optimism — it has torn down the marina.

Today, 93 percent of the authority’s water comes from the Ogallala Aquifer, a rich stream of groundwater that stretches through six states. That the transition came before the lake ran dry, though, was due more to luck than planning. A decade ago, the authority launched a modest project aimed at improving water quality that became an urgent $300 million enterprise to access more groundwater when the lake began dropping.

“We don’t care about quality anymore. We’re concerned about quantity,” Satterwhite said.

Soward warns this could become all of Texas’ fate.

“If we don’t deal with this now,” he said, “this state’s going to have to close the doors and say, ‘We can’t take any more people, because we don’t have the water.’”

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