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Getting desalination right in Texas

By Tom Spencer and Myron Hess The intense drought that had Texas in its grip from 2010 – 2015 still haunts the state – reservoirs shrank to alarming levels, homeowners struggled to keep their landscapes alive, wild fires raged, and agricultural losses ran into the billions of dollars. Against this backdrop, the idea of desalinating water from the Gulf of Mexico to create a drought-proof supply for use in homes, farms, and factories has great appeal. In response to two pieces of legislation passed in 2015, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) proposed rules earlier this year to streamline the authorization process for desalination facilities to make water withdrawals and discharges along the Gulf....

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Desalination could harm Texas Bays

  Written by Tom Spencer August 2, 2016   Rubbing Salt in the Wound In the best of times, Texas’ bays are teeming with life thanks to a vital mix of fresh and salt water. But, let’s face it, Texas’ bays have seen better times. Overuse of water by humans and the drought of 2011 – 2015 endangered fish, shell fish and game by slowing the flow of freshwater into the bays. Then, earlier this year, historic floods overwhelmed the bays with too much freshwater throwing the necessary salt and fresh water balance out of whack. How can we help our bays to thrive? One way is to not rub salt into their wounds. Responding to recently passed legislation, the Texas...

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Water Efficiency Networks: Regional Cooperation and Success on Water Conservation

Effective water conservation measures shouldn’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries such as city or county lines and knowledge shouldn’t either. This is the foundation of the Water Efficiency Networks in Central Texas and the Gulf Coast region. What is a Water Efficiency Network? A Water Efficiency Network (WEN) is a group of water providers and water conservation advocates that meet monthly with the purpose of learning about the latest conservation tools being used locally and globally and to openly and actively share information with peers about efficiency education, legislation, programs, and technologies.   The goal is to share information, learn from each other and to regionally have an impact on water supplies and use. At these...

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The best time to plan for drought is when we aren’t in one

Drought is nothing new to Texans; it is frequent and inevitable. Across much of Texas the end of the current drought is being declared—soil moisture levels are nearing normal and ephemeral rivers are flowing again—while other portions of the state are already on the verge of slipping back into drought conditions despite recent rains. This reprieve from drought is a most welcome relief, yet we can be certain there is another drought around the corner. Drought, unlike a hurricane or flood, doesn’t have a distinct beginning or end. Drought is a creeping phenomenon that is, in the most basic terms, defined by the lack of precipitation. However, some municipalities define drought by water treatment...

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Environmental Flow Battle on the Brazos

As Texas ebbs and flows between drought and flooding, one of the largest applications for a surface water right that the state has ever seen has been slowly progressing through the administrative legal system. As proposed by the Brazos River Authority (BRA) and TCEQ’s Executive Director, the permit does not come close to protecting environmental flows adequate to protect a sound ecological environment. TCEQ adopted environmental flow standards in 2014 for the Brazos basin as part of the Senate Bill 3 (S.B.3) environmental flow process. Under S.B.3 all pending water right applications in that basin are required to comply with those standards. Unfortunately, those standards, adopted through a lengthy process, fall short of what...

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Looking into the crystal ball: 2014-15 Galveston Bay oyster season

Texas’ commercial oyster season began November 1, 2014 and runs until April 30, 2015. Last year’s harvest was marked by drought, an oil spill, and a toxic algal bloom. Historically, Galveston Bay oysters accounted for about 72% of Texas total harvest by weight; however, the last 3 seasons dropped to 42%. Given these challenges, will the 2014-2015 harvests improve? There is no easy answer, but let’s take a look at what we know. The Basics on Oysters The Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is native to Galveston Bay. Oyster reefs were once prevalent throughout Galveston Bay, but the range has greatly declined.  Among the suite of factors behind this demise are physical factors like oyster shell...

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Texas’ Courts Legal Treatment of Groundwater is Fluid

Groundwater rights have been hotly debated in Texas for as long as there has been the ability to pump it. Unlike surface water, which is owned by the state and held in trust for the public, Texas courts have ruled that groundwater is the surface owner’s vested private property. This vested right can be regulated by Groundwater Conservation Districts (GCD). But not all regions have GCDs and their regulatory approaches can vary greatly even if they are present, so the primary legal rule governing groundwater pumping is the Rule of Capture. This rule was adopted by the Texas Supreme Court as the governing principle of groundwater law over a century ago. The Court did...

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Next Steps for San Antonio’s Vista Ridge Project

This blog was written with the assistance of Amy Hardberger, Assistant Professor of Law at St. Mary's University Last week, the San Antonio City Council unanimously voted to move forward with the Vista Ridge Project that plans to bring 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater from Burleson County to the city. Because of our many concerns with this project, the vote was a disappointment, but last Thursday’s Council deliberation did stir some positives worth discussing. Edwards Aquifer Protection Environmental groups have been publicly criticized for opposing the Vista Ridge project. Project supporters argue environmentalists should support the project reasoning the additional water will reduce pumping on the Edwards Aquifer. Indeed, it does seem that initially the water from...

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Financing Sustainable Water: Tools for Solving the Revenue/Conservation Paradox

There are many reasons to get excited about water conservation. However, one big question that water utilities often confront is how can a utility sustain itself financially if it encourages its customers to buy less of its product? Solutions to this challenge don’t lend themselves to quick and easy explanations, which is why the Texas Living Waters Project, in conjunction with Texas Water Foundation and the Alliance for Water Efficiency, is hosting one-day seminars in both Houston and Dallas. The seminars are designed to provide information utilities need to navigate the challenges of revenue volatility, scarce supply, variable weather, and declining demand. Water resource professionals, and water conservation advocates willing to embrace the details, will...

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Vista Ridge Project Creates More Questions Than Answers

UPDATE: My  statement from the public hearing can be read here. This blog was written with the assistance of Tyson Broad with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club For those who are keeping track, we are in year 4 of a statewide drought. Although some areas have received rainfall relief, the continuing drought has led many communities to ponder whether they have enough water for their future and, if not, where more water can be procured. Unfortunately, new water isn’t something that can easily be bought or delivered. It’s expensive, the infrastructure is lacking and the locals often don’t want it exported away from their region. Last spring, we posted a piece about a...

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