May 2014, Vol. 26, No.5

Continuing drought spurs new plans, actions in Texas


Wastewater begins to play a more prominent role as a solution to Texas’ water crisis      

Much of Texas still is grappling with dwindling and uncertain water supplies. This decline is caused by a prolonged drought that is now entering its seventh year and includes the record-setting year of 2011, when the state experienced its most severe single-year drought in history.  

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.


New supply projects for central Texas in the works

According to 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.

Despite 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 high-use period.

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.

The reservoir 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,” she said.

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 by LCRA.


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 year.

According to 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.

Greg Flores, 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 for.” 

However, other 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.

But Flores 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.

Another 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 TCEQ.  

“Since our 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.


San 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.

Under a 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 to access.

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.

Jeff Gunderson, WE&T 



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.

Although limited 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 year-over-year change.

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.


  —Jeff Gunderson, WE&T