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Texas to Enact Five-Year Water Plan

The Texas Water Development Board is expected to adopt a new water plan in December.
Photo by KUT News
The Texas Water Development Board is expected to adopt a new water plan in December.

Facing a severe drought and dwindling water sources, Texas is moving toward adopting its next five-year state water plan.

Drafting the plan is never easy, and this time it grew difficult because of a reservoir dispute in northeast Texas; questions about climate change science; and the sheer population growth of the state.

Amid that scenario, the Texas Water Development Board is expected to consider approving the water plan Dec. 15 after postponing a decision at its last meeting, agency officials said.  

An adopted plan is due Jan. 5 to Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders. It looks ahead to the next 50 years and is the product of work done by regional water planning groups.

Preparing for a severe drought is a major reason for the plan, “so that sufficient water will be available at a reasonable cost to ensure public health, safety and welfare,” said Dan Hardin, the agency’s director of water resources planning. “It serves as the guide to state water policy.”

Warnings contained in the draft document are dire.

“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, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises,” board chairman Edward G. Vaughan wrote in the introduction.

Texas’ population is projected to grow from its current 25 million to 46 million by 2060, and demand for water is expected to increase 22 percent during that time. However, existing water supplies are expected to decline about 10 percent, the draft plan states.

Without needed water supply projects or new water management strategies, income losses of $11.9 billion annually could occur in Texas if the current drought approaches the drought of record of the 1950s, according to the plan. That loss could reach $115.7 billion by 2060.

Water leaders are recommending that the Legislature provide a way to acquire potential reservoir sites; reduce some restrictions on the voluntary transfer of surface water; and develop a long-term way to fund water plan projects.

In a breakdown by regions, the state plan also summarizes the water needs for different areas of Texas.

The Environmental Defense Fund, a group that’s been watching and commenting on the state water plan, praised the attempt to create the comprehensive document. But EDF attorney and water specialist Amy Hardberger said it falls short by relying on “traditional thinking” to solve modern problems.

“It doesn’t give us credit that we can use water differently,” she said. “It just needs some tweaking to really be effective.”

For example, she said, there should be increased reliance on water conservation in the plan and less emphasis on expensive surface water transfers via pipelines from region to region, which she calls an extension of the old-style reservoir approach to water needs.

Meanwhile, a dispute over the proposed Marvin Nichols reservoir in northeast Texas arose during the regional planning stage and is now an issue before the Texas Water Development Board. The Dallas-Fort Worth region wants to build the reservoir along the Sulphur River, but the northeast Texas region opposes it.

A leader of the reservoir opposition is Ward Timber, a company in Linden that worries about economic losses in the timber industry.  Ward Timber and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the water development board over the reservoir dispute.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office said the lawsuit has not yet been resolved. The water development board declined to comment on the case or its affect on the water plan.

Another tricky issue was climate change. The proposed plan mentions 2007 findings by the International Panel on Climate Change, but in response to public comments a recent revision in the water plan clarified that Texas water leaders don’t have a position on the cause of temperature increases.

One reason the water plan is important is any water project seeking funding from the water development board or a water rights permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must be consistent with the plan, according to Hardin.

The price tag in the plan for capital costs is $53 billion, and that only covers about one-fourth of what is needed for water projects for the next 50 years.

The Texas Legislature has been struggling with how to pay for water needs. Among other water and drought issues, lawmakers leading up to their 2013 session are studying ways to pay for implementing the state water plan.

In November, Texas voters approved Proposition 2 that allows the Texas Water Development Board to issue bonds continually for water projects. But the total outstanding amount at any time cannot surpass $6 billion.


-         Time frame: Looks ahead 50 years.

-         Projected state population growth: 82 percent.

-         Projected state water demand: Increase of 22 percent, from 18 million acre-feet per year in 2010 to 22 million per year by 2060.

-         Existing water supply declines: Decrease of 10 percent, mainly from depletion of Ogallala Aquifer and less reliance on Gulf Coast Aquifer.

-         Total statewide capital costs in plan: $53 billion.

-         Drought of record used as benchmark: 1950s drought.

-         Additional water supplies needed by 2060 in Lower Colorado K Region (includes Austin, Bay City): 367,671 acre-feet per year.

-         Projected population increase in Lower Colorado K Region: 100 percent.

-         Total capital costs in Lower Colorado K Region: $907 million.

-         Conservation in Lower Colorado K Region: Accounts for 37 percent of 2060 strategy.

-         Reuse in Lower Colorado K Region: Accounts for 21 percent.


Source: Texas Water Development Board

Veteran Texas journalist Kelley Shannon is the founder and owner of Shannon has worked for multiple news organizations and spent 22 years with the Associated Press based in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. Among the major news stories she covered for the AP were the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco and the ensuing federal trial of surviving sect members; the massacre at a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen; the Democratic boycott over congressional redistricting in the 2003 Texas Legislature; and the presidential election of then-Gov. George W. Bush.