Carolyn Brittin: The TT Interview

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Carolyn Brittin, the Texas Water Development Board official in charge of overseeing the state's five-year water plan
Carolyn Brittin, the Texas Water Development Board official in charge of overseeing the state's five-year water plan

Last month the Texas Water Development Board released its water plan for the state, with a number of sobering predictions. Overseeing the 295-page publication was Carolyn Brittin, the deputy executive administrator of water resources planning and information.

Brittin was born in Illinois but grew up in Garland and ended up with a master's degree in agronomy from Texas A&M University. She got curious about water use in urban landscapes and joined the Water Development Board in 1989. She spoke with the Tribune about how the plan was compiled — and the nervousness she feels when she looks at the numbers. This interview has been edited and condensed.

TT: One of the first things in the water plan that struck me was this: "The primary message of the 2012 state water plan is a simple one. In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, and its businesses and its agricultural enterprises." What exactly does that mean, and how scared should we be?

Brittin: That means that if we are in another drought of record, we will not have enough water supply today. And if we have another drought of record or worse over the 50-year planning horizon, we will not have enough water in our state to meet our water supply needs and to support our citizens and our economy.

TT: How did the current drought influence what was written in the report?

Brittin: I think it just highlights that the plan is for drought conditions — that the purpose of the plan is to have adequate water supply during times of drought. So I think we stress a little bit more in this plan that it is a plan for drought — and a little more emphasis on how it would deal with that.

TT: How much worse than the drought of record does the water plan take into account as a potential outcome?

Brittin: When you look at calculating how much supply we have available to meet our current demands that are already sitting there — some regions are looking at extending the drought of record [i.e., a scenario equivalent to the worst drought in Texas history, during the 1950s] by a year or up to two years. It's called looking at a safe yield of water supplies.

TT: But that is not mandated by the state.

Brittin: No. The laws governing regional water planning require that they look at the drought of record ... how much water to get us through a drought of record. We require that that be baseline. The majority of regions look at greater than a drought of record. And then the other way to address it is on the water management strategy side — planning for more than we think we need if there was a recurrence of the drought of record.

TT: What's the difference between the $53 billion and the $231 billion in the plan?

Brittin: The $53 billion that comes in the water supply plan is the cost of water management strategies to meet that water supply need. It is only to develop new water supplies, to do conservation, to contract for additional supplies. And on the development on the new supplies, it can include treatment of that water and movement of it to a water utility system.

It does not include our state's needs for wastewater collection and treatment. It doesn't include a utility's internal distribution systems — the pipe that takes it from the water treatment to your house, or to our businesses or manufacturers. And it doesn't include flood control costs. The $53 billion is a portion of the $231 billion; the $231 billion would be all of our water-related needs for infrastructure in the state (up to 2060).

TT: How are these numbers calculated? Would you say they are middle of the road, or aggressive or conservative numbers?

Brittin: In my opinion they are the medium — they are the middle-of-the-road numbers. The water plan costs are developed through the regional water planning process when they evaluate a strategy. The flood control costs comes from [Army] Corps of Engineers-related flood control studies and their estimates of costs to implement flood control. The other water and wastewater related costs come from a survey we do for the EPA to get state or national infrastructure costs. They are from surveys. I believe they are as accurate a tally as we can get.

TT: Having lived in Texas more or less since you were 3, how do the numbers in this water plan — just as a citizen of this state — make you feel? I mean, does it make you nervous?

Brittin: I have to overlay than other than just being citizen of the state of Texas, I work with this daily and it scares me. That's a 3.6 million acre-feet of [water] need if we were in a drought today is going to have a huge impact. And this planning process was started as a local and regional basis in 1997 due to the drought in 1996, and we had cities actually running out of water. And that scares me for the public health and safety of our citizens as well as our economic viability. Our businesses and our industry — our electrical power needs water. And if we don't have it, it's going to hurt.

TT: When you were writing this plan, did anything stand out as surprising to you?

Brittin: Other than the worst one-year drought on record — that was the biggest surprise. It elevated the importance of this plan.

TT: These water plans come out every five years. How has this one changed since the one five years ago?

Brittin: I think the most dramatic change between this plan and the 2007 plan is the increased cost of implementing the plan. It's risen from $31 billion to $53 billion in this plan. That's due to increased cost of implementation related to construction cost; the price of water — for purchasing water — and land cost increasing related to mitigation. There's also an increase in projects due to uncertainties related to climate variability as well as implementation of strategies.

I think there's more strategies planned — or more volumes of water planned in this plan to deal with uncertainties if we have a drought worse than a drought of record [i.e., the 1950s] or have significant climate variability that deals with with that drought. The state water plan is a plan to meet water supply needs during drought conditions. The statute has us looking at drought of record availability [of water]. Most regions plan based on greater than a drought of record due to the uncertainty and in the event we do have one longer than the one in the 1950s...

TT: If there's this dramatic of an increase between five years ago and this plan, does that potentially meant that in another five years it could lead to [more increases]?

Brittin: Yes. ... The cost to implement the plan today is going to be cheaper than it is in the future. And as we delay implementation the costs are going to increase due to various factors. Some of the other changes in this plan from 2007 are that we've seen a slight decrease in needs for additional water supply and that is because there has been some implementation since 2007 in the projects in those plans.

I also wanted to mention that population has increased slightly — our population projections, from the 2007 to this plan. Some demands have increased related to municipal use [and] manufacturing, mining and livestock and livestock have had slight increases.

TT: Climate change — was this really the first time the five-year water plan dealt with climate change, and can you talk about what factored into including that?

Brittin: It is not the first time. We addressed climate change in the 2007 plan when we talked about uncertainty and risk associated with planning. We after that plan sought guidance from some experts in the climate change science and the problem being if there is climate variability happening, what assumptions do you make for the planning process that impact the factors that we use to plan for — how much supply are we going to have, what's our demand going to be. And we've received no good advice on how we would change those factors.

We feel that climate variability is addressed by the cyclical nature of the planning cycle. The state requires that we do this every five years, so we're able to look at existing supplies and re-look at our demand projections over time, as well as addressing it with looking at worse than the drought of record.

I think I'd already mentioned that the statute that governs the water planning process requires us to look at drought of record. A lot of regions plan for worse than the drought of record and then have that safety factor in their water management strategies — maybe having a little more volume recommended to be implemented than what the actual needs are for a specific water user group in the event that the climate variability is going to impact water supplies.

TT: What is the next step in this water plan? It's a draft now. How does it get approved, and when does that happen?

Brittin: We're conducting public meetings to get public input on the plan this week and next. On Oct. 17 we will have our formal public hearing. We're in a 30-day public comment period, so in addition to these meetings and that hearing, anyone can email us or write us with comments on the plan up until Oct. 25.

After that we will review all those public comments and make any adjustments to the draft as necessary. And then at our Nov. 17 board meeting — our board will take a look at a revised plan and consider approving it for adoption. If they approve it for adoption we'll send it to the printer and deliver it to public and Legislature in January.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misspelled Carolyn Brittin's last name. It is now corrected.

 

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