GUEST VIEW: If we fail to plan, we’re planning to fail

The State of Texas, along with local entities, including municipalities and groundwater districts, need to work together to ensure we have the water we need for future generations of Texans. The drought of 2011, the worst one-year drought in Texas history, resulted in towns literally running out of water. We can’t accept this as a way of life in our great state.
Recently, my office tasked the Texas Water Development Board to model what our state’s groundwater and surface water resources would look like if the drought of 2011 had endured for two to five years, as climatologists predict will happen in the next century based on tree ring analysis and data collected over the last five centuries. According to the Board’s model, if 2011 conditions persisted, 70 of the state’s 117 reservoirs would have been dried up at the end of five years. Aggregate surface water storage would have dropped from 19.4 million acre feet at the end of 2011 to 4.9 million acre feet at the end of 2015. The projected effect on groundwater resources would have been equally devastating, with median aquifer levels decreasing anywhere from 9 percent to 84 percent depending on the aquifer. This virtual model projects what Texas will experience sometime in the next century and it should drive policymakers to take bold steps to prepare for the next drought, as our predecessors did in response to the drought of the 1950s.
During the 85th Legislative Session, we intend to build on the policy successes of last session, when we passed meaningful legislation to drought-proof Texas. The State has major challenges ahead when it comes to securing our water future, but it can be done by working together as Texans and resisting the temptation to fight each other along arbitrary political boundaries.
One of the impediments we have in developing groundwater resources for our population centers is the parochial mindset inherent in the groundwater conservation districts that have been set up over the last two decades in Texas. While a majority of groundwater conservation districts understand the law and respect property rights, there are a few who hold the view that their purpose is to block access to anyone outside of their immediate community from using groundwater for future water supplies. State law and recent case law indicates they are on the wrong side of the property rights dispute and we will pursue groundwater reforms to remove the ability for this type of discrimination to occur.
In Texas, we fight each other fiercely along regional planning lines, while the state has abdicated its role in facilitating a comprehensive statewide water plan. The balkanization of our state into regions has proven to be the biggest hindrance to building the large-scale regional projects we need to serve rapidly growing areas. This session we will be advocating for better cooperation between the regions.
In addition, we will continue to promote the use of new technologies, like aquifer storage and recovery (ASR), to bolster our water supply. Texas lost more than 94 million acre-feet of excess flood flows in 2015 alone. Instead of allowing this water to flow out into the Gulf of Mexico with no beneficial use, we need to capture it and store it for future times of need. Legislation that we passed last session includes a bill that removed regulatory impediments to developing ASR projects, and we have filed two pieces of legislation this session that will build upon that effort.
The first piece tasks the Texas Water Development Board with studying the geologic formations along the river basins to determine which aquifers are most conducive for underground storage. The second requires the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to develop an excess flows credits program that will allow surface water permit holders to commit to harvesting and storing excess flows that are above base flow and environmental flow requirements and that would otherwise evaporate or flow into the ocean so they can be given an additional percentage of the water they are entitled to, based on their existing permit.
Desalination is the new horizon for Texas water. Last session we passed legislation to identify areas of highly productive aquifers that hold brackish groundwater throughout the state that can enable brackish desalination. Identifying these highly productive brackish zones was an important step in determining where our future water supplies are. Just as San Antonio recently completed the first phase of its brackish desalination plant in southern Bexar County, many cities will look to brackish water as a source to meet future growth demands. Going forward we will continue to work with stakeholders on legislation that clearly defines how brackish groundwater should be regulated to ensure that this resource can be accessed and developed for future generations.
We will also continue to work to help foster the development of Texas’s first seawater desalination plant along the coast. As countries such as Israel and Australia, as well as the State of California, have embarked on investing in seawater desalination, the State of Texas needs to facilitate the development of three large scale seawater desalination plants in Corpus Christi, the League City area and Brownsville. Harvesting water from a virtually unlimited water supply like the Gulf of Mexico is necessary as droughts driven both by climate and demography continue to cause increased pressure on existing resources.
It is also imperative that we continue to work with neighboring states to bring new water to bear. Last session we passed legislation which created the Southwestern States Water Commission. The creation of this Commission is an attempt to take disputes with neighboring states out of the courtroom and instead, facilitate a dialogue between the Southwestern States that share contiguous bodies of water in order to effectively solve the ongoing problem of allocating a scarce and precious resource. As we face prolonged droughts in this part of the country, the Commission will take the lead in developing regional strategies to address water shortages. Large scale water projects like the Toledo Bend Reservoir and Lake Texoma were realized only through cooperation by parties in both states. We need to bring this cooperative spirit back to solve our region’s challenges.
My office has also been active in participating in meetings with officials from the Mexican government, representatives of the International Boundary and Water Commission, and Governor Abbott’s office in Austin to discuss our shared water resources and the 1944 water treaty between the United States and Mexico. We must hold Mexico accountable. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that Mexico complies with the 1944 water treaty. This water is necessary for irrigation and other uses in the Rio Grande Valley and we owe it to those folks to make sure Mexico releases the water as required by the treaty. We look forward to continuing these discussions. We continue to advocate for synchronization of the Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers within the treaty to ensure that Texans receive the total allocation of water to which they are entitled.
The exponential population growth Texas is experiencing should be met with a focused agenda brought forth by the leadership in Austin. We will bring forward constructive and innovative approaches to governing both ground and surface water, with a commitment to future Texans in mind.
Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, represents part of San Antonio in the Texas House of Representatives, where he serves as Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. He can be reached at lyle.larson@house.texas.gov or @RepLyleLarson.