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What's the Magic Number on Texas' Water Needs?

How much water does the state need in the coming decades? It depends on whom you ask. State water planners say that Texas needs 2.7 trillion more gallons of water a year by 2060. But some water law and planning specialists say that figure is far too high.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Lake Travis, a major water supply reservoir for Austin, is severely depleted due to drought. The State Water Plan calls for dozens more such reservoir projects to be built in the coming decades to meet Texas' future water needs.

How much more water will Texas really need by 2060?

The 2012 state water plan — the state’s strategy for meeting water needs — estimated that Texas would face a shortfall of 2.7 trillion gallons of water a year by 2060, and that filling the gap would take an estimated $53 billion in new infrastructure.

But some water law and planning specialists believe that number is too high. A report for the nonprofit Texas Center for Policy Studies, an environmental research group, says that Texas would only need an additional 1.1 trillion gallons of water a year by 2060. That's in part because, according to the report, state water planners have overestimated the needs for water from the agricultural industry and from cities. Plus, it says, the plan underestimated the effects of water conservation measures.

The Texas Water Development Board, which wrote the state water plan, acknowledged that some of its assumptions might need to be revised and that demand forecasts could fall as the plan is updated every five years. But the agency also called some of the center’s assumptions unrealistic, noting that every community’s water needs and ability to conserve water are different.

"TWDB and the regional water planning groups continually seek to refine the available data to result in the most accurate plans possible and welcome public input at all levels of planning," the agency said in a written response to the report. 

If the state’s water needs are far lower than projected, the implications for state policy could be significant. In November, in the throes of a historic drought, voters approved spending $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to help finance sources of new water supplies. Good data is crucial for sustainable water planning, the report’s authors say, and relying on inaccurate information could have severe consequences.

“Once policymakers, the media and the public see that single number, it tends to be taken as gospel,” wrote the authors of the report by the Center for Policy Studies, Mary Kelly and Rick Lowerre, who are environmental lawyers, and Joe Trungale, an engineer and hydrologist.

That report specifically questioned the water plan’s projection for water needs for agriculture, in part because a dwindling water supply in the Southern High Plains is already forcing corn and cotton growers to cut back. While irrigation in that region accounts for almost a quarter of the projected increase in water needs by 2060 — nearly 800 billion gallons a year — the Ogallala Aquifer is rapidly being sucked dry, making agricultural expansion unlikely, the report said. Even today, there are large demands for water for irrigation in the region that aren't being met, and no one has proposed viable water projects to increase agricultural water supplies. 

The problem, the study’s authors say, is that lowering the projected needs for the Southern High Plains makes a statement on the future of farming that area residents are not ready to embrace. 

“The plan can’t make there be more water in the aquifer,” said Ken Rainwater, a professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock who specializes in water resources management. Residents may hope that current levels of farming in the Southern High Plains can continue through 2060 and even expand, he said, but “that’s just not going to happen.”

The region has never come to a consensus on how to project water needs for irrigation in 50 years, said Jason Coleman, general manager of the High Plains Underground Water District, which has tried unsuccessfully to limit groundwater pumping by farmers in the Southern High Plains. Asked if he felt the number in the current state water plan is realistic, he said, "I'm not sure that anyone of the [regional planning] group members would say, we've finally figured that out." 

Cities also may be overestimating their needs, the report says. The region that includes the fast-growing Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area projects that it will need nearly a trillion gallons more water a year  by 2060. But conservation strategies, like reducing lawn watering and using more efficient appliances, have already reduced that number since an earlier plan was released in 2007.

Calculations in the report suggest that if such conservation measures are built upon as the state water plan continues to be updated, the Dallas-Fort Worth region could reduce its 2060 demand by as much as 200 billion gallons of water a year. That is about as much water as would be supplied by a controversial and expensive water project  the region is considering — the $3.3 billion Marvin Nichols Reservoir in East Texas.

“Do I think we can eliminate the need for some projects? Yes. That’s what we’re actively trying to accomplish,” said Dan Buhman, assistant general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District, which would benefit from Marvin Nichols. But he added that some expensive water projects would have to be built, and almost every project involves controversy.

Officials have also said that large cities like Dallas, which have big businesses and draw out-of-town residents every day, might not be able to conserve the same way that other communities would. 

“I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but there’s a certain point where there’s nothing left to cut back on," said Denis Qualls, a planning manager for Dallas Water Utilities. "For life, you and I need X amount of water. What's the perfect number? I don't know."

Still, he and other North Texas water planners said, there is more opportunity for large water savings through conservation measures. Dallas recently passed an ordinance restricting lawn-watering to twice a week year-round, and other cities are considering following suit. 

The consequences of overestimating water needs might already be playing out in Austin, where residents and city council members are wondering whether the city needs the $508 million treatment plant being built in northwest Austin. The costs of the plant, which was hotly debated for years, are set to result in large water rate increases, but some critics say the plant is unnecessary because Austinites have done a much better job conserving water than expected. 

But others say even if Texas does not need 2.7 trillion gallons of additional water a year within the next five decades, tens of billions of dollars in spending could still be necessary. Elizabeth Fazio, committee director and chief clerk for the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, said the state had already delayed needed water infrastructure so long that it was bound to get more expensive.

“We may be able to stretch our current water resources further by doing more conservation,” Fazio said. “But the fact still remains that infrastructure still costs money, and the more people we have, the more that number is going to grow.”

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