With conditions abnormally dry throughout the populous metro regions of
the state and water storage volumes near critical levels in reservoirs
providing water to Central Texas, agencies are hurrying to develop new sources
and secure reliable future supplies.
As options are
explored, Texas utilities are starting to focus more on reclaimed wastewater,
which increasingly is being viewed as a valuable supply alternative. But with
limited allocations coveted, disputes normally reserved for water are beginning
to apply to wastewater.
supply projects for central Texas in the works
March data from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA; Austin, Texas), total
combined storage in Lakes Buchanan and Travis – the region’s major reservoirs
and part of the Highland Lakes storage system – equaled 38% capacity, and
inflows during January into the Highland Lakes were the lowest for that month
since the 1950s.
significant drought contingency measures, storage reservoirs in the beginning
of this year are at lower levels than compared to the previous year, said Karen
Bondy, LCRA executive manager of water resources. “If dry conditions persist,
then by the end of the summer we could be in a drought worse than our drought
of record, which was the 10-year drought of the 1950s,” she said.
A new drought of
record would be reached if combined storage in Lakes Buchanan and Travis dips
below 30% capacity, or 740 million m3 (600,000 ac-ft) of supply, a
level that would trigger a curtailment for LCRA firm customers, requiring
municipalities and industries to cut water use by 20% compared to a reference
With these challenges looming, the LCRA actively is developing two
supply projects that will add approximately 123 million m3/yr(100,000
ac-ft/yr) to the region’s water supply. The majority of these new reserves will
come from a new reservoir in the lower part of the Colorado River basin that
will provide 111,000 m3 (90,000 ac-ft) of firm supply.
will be located strategically in the wetter part of the river’s watershed and
closer to LCRA industrial and agricultural customers, enabling LCRA to be more
efficient in its capture and delivery of water, according to Bondy. “Instead of
releasing water from upstream in the Highland Lakes and waiting up to 2 weeks
for flows to arrive, we will be able to operate on more of a real-time basis,”
The LCRA’s other
supply project will add another 12.3 million m3/yr(10,000
ac-ft/yr) of supply by tapping groundwater from the Lost Pines Groundwater
Conservation District in Bastrop County, east of Austin, underneath land owned
A claim for wastewater
An example that underscores the struggle among competing water uses and
the significance of reclaimed wastewater in a water-stressed context is a
scenario that is unfolding in south-central Texas. At the end of last year, the
San Antonio Water System (SAWS) submitted a “bed and banks” permit application
to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that, if granted, would
allow SAWS to retain ownership of 62 million m3 (50,000 ac-ft) of
highly treated wastewater that it releases into the San Antonio River every
Texas water law, all surface water is considered property of the state, but
SAWS wants to maintain ownership of its effluent after it is discharged in
order to transport it to San Antonio Bay on the Gulf of Mexico to help protect
coastal estuaries that support important Texas wildlife resources, including
the nation’s largest flock of endangered whooping cranes.
SAWS vice president of public affairs, said delivering reclaimed wastewater to
the bay would help fulfill city policy aimed at providing environmental flows
for habitat preservation and supporting such in-stream uses as navigation,
fisheries, and hydropower.
“We underwent a
stakeholder, scientific-based process to establish how much water supply was
needed to help sustain inflows to the bays and estuary under drought
conditions,” Flores said. “That was how we determined the quantity to apply
water users downstream of San Antonio have expressed opposition to the
application. Most notably, Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco
River Authority (Seguin, Texas) argued that the permit, if approved, would be
problematic for entities that depend on that wastewater volume, especially
during dry years when most of it is used.
maintains that SAWS has no legal obligation to discharge any effluent into the
river in the first place, and that many of the existing water use permits were
not issued in reliance on SAWS’ wastewater because they were authorized prior
to when SAWS started discharging into the river.
distinction is the fact that the wastewater SAWS treats originates from
groundwater. SAWS is seeking the permit under a section of the Texas Water Code
that allows entities to discharge and subsequently divert and reuse flows
derived from privately owned groundwater if authorization is obtained from
discharges are primarily based on groundwater that we own, we believe, under
state law, a case can be made to claim that wastewater even after it is
released into the river,” Flores said.
Angelo to consider using wastewater
Northwest of San Antonio, in west–central Texas, ongoing and severe
drought has depleted the City of San Angelo’s water resources, placing the city
in a difficult situation and presenting a tough decision — one that will shape
the course of its future water supply.
long-standing contract with the Tom Green County Water Control Improvement
District #1 (Veribest, Texas), San Angelo sends 30 million m3/yr
(25,000 ac-ft/yr) of wastewater to the district, and in exchange the district
leaves an equal amount of fresh water in the Twin Buttes Reservoir for the city
However, because of diminished supplies in Twin Buttes, the city has not
been receiving any fresh water in exchange for its wastewater, and because of
the contract arrangement, the city is required to continue sending its
wastewater even though it is getting nothing in return. But the agreement also
includes a clause that allows both parties to either stop sending or receiving
water, as long as a year’s notice is given.
Now, with the
city’s water sources running dangerously low and only an estimated 11 months of
available supply remaining, the city is turning its focus toward its wastewater
and is initiating a study — against a backdrop of diminishing supplies and the
timing of providing notice — that will evaluate potential options for potable
and nonpotable reuse.
Severe California drought forces shutdown of water deliveries to 29 communities
In late January,
diminishing reservoir supplies and an exceptionally dry forecast prompted the
State of California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to halt completely
allocations from the State Water Project to all 29 of its public agency
customers. This is the first time in the State Water Project’s 54-year history
that distributions have been scaled back to zero.
supplies still will be available for health, fire protection, and sanitation
considerations, communities will have to depend on other water sources for
meeting potable needs. DWR director Mark Cowin said there was “not enough water
in the system … for customers to expect any water this season from the project.”
Indeed, after 2013 ended as California’s
driest year on record, DWR stated that forecasts for 2014 suggest an even drier
year ahead. As of early March, data from the U.S. Drought Monitor revealed that
91% of California was in a severe drought and 66% of the state in extreme
drought, up from 27% and 0%, respectively, a year ago, revealing an alarming
With the water
supply picture deteriorating, the state has proposed a $15 billion plan to
build two 48-km (30-mi) tunnels for conveying water from the northern region of
the state to drier areas in the south, a project that would also help support
water supplies in the important Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.