Texas Water Solutions

Is your water utility taking steps to conserve our most precious resource?

December 08, 2016

While there are numerous ways to manage water in Texas, conservation is one of the cheapest and most environmentally beneficial strategies that can be used. More and more utilities are understanding these benefits and are implementing water conservation strategies in their communities. A new way to finance water conservation projects is the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT), a water infrastructure financing program made available through the Texas Water Development Board.

One of the great aspects of SWIFT is that 20 percent of funds are set aside for water conservation and reuse projects. The Sierra Club and their partners in the Texas Living Waters project successfully advocated for this set-aside for water conservation and we are proud of its inclusion in SWIFT.

During the first round of SWIFT Funding only 5 percent of the projects that applied for SWIFT Funds were for water conservation. However, Kathleen Jackson of the Texas Water Development Board says that in the most-recent funding cycle, “more than 35 percent of the total funds requested were for conservation and reuse projects.”

Dec. 1 of this year marked the next round of SWIFT funding and the Texas Living Waters Project is hoping even more utilities will take advantage of the funds available for conservation.

The Texas Water Development Board is doing its part by working with utilities and applicants to guide them through the SWIFT funding process. We at the Texas Living Waters project are helping utilities understand and access SWIFT conservation funds. We are organizing SWIFT Funding Workshops around the state that highlight water conservation. These workshops bring together water utility managers and policy makers to discuss the opportunities and challenges of using SWIFT funds for water conservation projects.

In addition to these workshops, we’ve created a step-by-step guide to navigating the SWIFT application process for small- and medium-sized utilities, Navigating the SWIFT Application Process: Water Conservation Projects.

Nobody needs to tell Texas how important our water is. In order for Texas to have enough water into the future, we need to use our existing supplies as efficiently and responsibly as possible. Keeping water conservation projects at the forefront of our planning is a vital first step for ensuring abundant water for both humans and wildlife.

Cities all across Texas been awarded SWIFT low-interest loans. Now’s the time for other Texas utilities to do the same!

More information about SWIFT Funding can be found here.

The next SWIFT Workshop will be held on Dec. 15 in Richmond, Texas. Register today to learn about how you can leverage SWIFT funds for water conservation.

Getting desalination right in Texas

November 08, 2016

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. National Wildlife Federation staff, along with our partners in the Texas Living Waters Project, reviewed the 250 pages of proposed rules and identified shortcomings that could put the many fish and wildlife that rely on Texas’ bays and estuaries at unnecessary risk. When we sounded the alarm, our members and supporters, along with our conservation partners, answered.


Shortcomings in TCEQ desalination rules could put the many fish and wildlife that rely on Texas’ bays and estuaries at unnecessary risk.

The proposed rules, although a credible start, fell short by failing to require that potential seawater desalination projects undergo a level of review and permit conditioning needed to minimize harm. Desalination withdrawals in particular, depending on location, could deprive bays of the freshwater inflows they need by sucking out this low salinity water before it has a chance to spread its benefit across the bay. These withdrawals could also devastatingly suck up young fish, shellfish, and other aquatic life by the billions.

We submitted 30 pages of detailed comments to TCEQ on how the rules should be improved, shared our analysis with other conservation partners so they could weigh in, and generated over two thousand public comments in support of stronger rules. The basic message of those comments is that although seawater desalination may make sense if properly located, it needs to be undertaken with care. It appears that TCEQ is listening.

Desalination plant in Adelaide, South Australia

Desalination plant in Adelaide, South Australia

Although the rules are still being finalized as TCEQ continues to work through some of the key issues that we raised in our comments, the revised version of the rules is dramatically improved in response to our comments. Here are just a few highlights of those improvements:

  • Eliminates ambiguous language that could have allowed diversions exempt from permit reviews and accompanying protections to be located in sensitive environments along the coast.
  • Provides for increased notice of permit applications to allow concerned persons and entities, like NWF, an opportunity to weigh in on individual projects.
  • Ensures more stringent review of proposed permit applications and their potential to harm or kill aquatic life by sucking creatures either against a screen or into the diversion pumps.

On behalf of key species like the whooping cranes, redfish, blue crabs and oysters that depend on healthy bays, NWF staff extends our thanks to all those, especially the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, who are helping Texas get desalination right.

Desalination could harm Texas Bays

August 02, 2016


Written by Tom Spencer

August 2, 2016


Rubbing Sand 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 Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is currently weighing options for streamlining the rules governing the permit process for desalination plants on the Texas coast.

Despite a very hefty price tag, desalination may make sense as a long-term strategy for developing a drought-proof supplement to our water supplies. However, if the water intake and waste discharge points for desalination plants aren’t sited appropriately, they could be disastrous for the life of our bays. Poorly located in-takes could suck-in billions of organisms as well as much needed fresh water, while the super-salty discharge would be toxic for bay environments.

The Texas Living Water Project, a collaboration between the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Galveston Bay Foundation has weighed in on this issue, providing TCEQ with detailed comments on the proposed rule changes with suggestions about how to protect wildlife. Meanwhile thousands of Texas Living Waters Project supporters have also raised their concerns via action alerts.

Texas’ bays serve as important nurseries for many fish and shellfish species. Both commercial and sport fishing operations rely on the abundance of life found in Texas’ bays. However, the water diversions and waste discharges that are a part of the desalination process could change all of that.

To get desalination right, the intake and discharge points should be properly regulated and sited. Strong permit conditions must be designed to protect our natural heritage.

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Water Efficiency Networks: Regional Cooperation and Success on Water Conservation

December 18, 2015

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 meetings, there is a featured speaker, field trip or other water related activity followed by a group discussion to share conservation-related news, and projects successes and challenges.

The Water Efficiency Networks are much more than meetings; they are a platform to foster regional water conservation partnerships. In a recent survey of the Gulf Coast/Montgomery County Water Efficiency Network, the majority of members (95% of those surveyed) recognized collaborative public outreach to promote water efficiency as significant. For example, network members partnered to launch awareness campaigns to connect the impact of outdoor irrigation on drinking water supplies. By pledging to follow local community watering schedules, participants received a free ‘This Yard is helping to Conserve Our Water Supply’ yard sign from with the Central Texas or Gulf Coast Network. The yard signs served as a talking point between neighbors within communities, and helped to curb excess outdoor lawn irrigation.

The latest example of Water Efficiency Network collaboration in action is the upcoming SWIFT Funding Workshop: Focus on Water Conservation in Houston on January 7th.  Network participants identified a need for additional information on the Texas Water Development Board’s SWIFT funding process. The creation of this workshop was a collaborative effort of several entities that participate in the Gulf Coast/Montgomery County Water Efficiency Network.  This workshop isn’t just for network participants, anyone that is interested in the topic can participate.

Need 3 more reasons to join your local Network?

  1. If you’re working to launch a new water conservation program, or making improvements to an existing one, the Water Efficiency Network is a source for information. Based on a recent survey of the Gulf Coast WEN, 61% of respondents made improvements to their water conservation programs as a result of conversations at the Water Efficiency Networks.
  2. Conservation can help stretch existing water resources, which delays the need for expensive water supply projects and additionally preserves critical freshwater for other purposes such as preserving fish and wildlife habitat. Learn how other utilities are making the case for conservation in their communities.
  3. The Networks host annual Water Conservation Symposiums to discuss current water conservation topics such as water conservation in the regional water planning process, financing water conservation, to maximizing tools for communicating water conservation. The Central Texas symposium is scheduled for February 2, 2016 in Austin, TX, and the Gulf Coast symposium is scheduled for March 9, 2016 in Houston, TX.

Start your 2016 off right and join a Network today!

Collaboration and information sharing can help you and your utility implement effective water programs.  There is no cost to join the Network. Sign up to be added to the mailing list today and start receiving notifications for upcoming meetings. Water Efficiency Networks are established for the following regions:

  • Central Texas
    • Meeting date/time: 2nd Thursday of the Month – 10:00 – Noon
    • Location: Rotates around Central Texas locations (Austin, Georgetown, San Marcos, Round Rock, Cedar Park etc.)
    • Coordinator: Jessica Woods, Water Conservation Coordinator, City of Round Rock

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

August 13, 2015

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 and storage capacity meaning that water restrictions aren’t triggered until we’re deep into drought. Since drought is unpredictable, planning for it must occur today, when we aren’t in drought. Proactive planning for drought today helps stretch our precious water resources for drier days, and helps keep our rivers sufficiently flowing to protect fish and wildlife.

What are Texas cities doing to prepare for drought?

In addition to having a good Drought Contingency Plan in place for times of drought, another important way that cities can better position themselves for the onset of a drought is by working to make the most efficient use of their existing water supplies all the time (through water conservation), even if drought is nowhere in sight. Cities across Texas are looking for ways to reduce their every day water use. As a water conservation measure, many communities have implemented year-round ordinances that restrict the number of days for outdoor watering. Example cities include Dallas, Fort Worth, and The Woodlands. Programs like this save water every day, so that when a community does inevitably begin to enter into drought, they have more water supply on hand.  This also reduces revenue volatility for the utility so it can better budget.

Some communities are taking more significant steps to further decrease the amount of water that is applied to outdoor landscapes, which increases overall water efficiency in their communities. Austin is considering implementing no more than one time per week outdoor watering year-round, and Corpus Christi has beefed up their Drought Contingency Plan, so that once per week watering is in effect nearly all the time—unless water supplies in their reservoirs surpass 90%.

Why one time per week watering?

According to reference material provided to the Corpus Christi City Council, “many citizens realized that one-day-per-week irrigation is more than enough to keep landscapes healthy in South Texas.” Texas has been in drought for many years, and communities have learned that landscapes can survive on less water than they have been accustomed to applying to their lawns and landscapes.

In a June 29, 2015 memo, Austin’s City Manager urged the City Council to consider adopting one time per week watering permanently. The memo stated that citizens have adapted to one day per week watering, which has yielded the largest water savings of all the programs the city has implemented to date. This easy measure to cut back on discretionary water use helps better prepare cities for drought by using water more efficiently all the time—so there will be more water available for everyone, and everything, when drought returns.

Why focus on the lawn?

In Texas, outdoor water use, particularly lawn watering, accounts for almost one third of annual residential water use, and can be much higher during hot, dry summers. In addition, homeowners have a tendency to overwater landscapes by as much as 2 to 3 times the amount needed.

Watering the lawn less frequently not only helps stretch our current water supplies, but also creates a hardier lawn. Less irrigation forces the plant roots to grow deeper.  Deeper roots provide more structure to the soil and hold more water, which allows lawns to better survive the drought.

What can you do?

Most of the water we use for drinking, cooking, bathing, and watering lawns comes from the rivers and bayous that flow into our bays and estuaries. Giving the sprinklers a rest reduces additional pumping or water diversions that further reduce the amount of water available to support fish and wildlife habitat in our rivers, bayous, and bays. It also means that we can put off or avoid the development of additional new water supplies, such as new pipelines and reservoirs, which are expensive and have significant environmental impacts.

Let’s do our part to ensure that we have water for people and the environment—in times of plenty and in times of drought. Find out the watering schedule in your community and follow it. Advocate for water savings through the implementation of outdoor watering restrictions that limit watering to no more than one or two times per week. Water is too precious – and expensive – to misuse it.

Environmental Flow Battle on the Brazos

June 01, 2015

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 the scientific experts—collectively known as the BBEST—recommended  as being necessary to protect a sound ecological environment in the Brazos basin. Given that starting point, it is especially critical to ensure that the standards are implemented in a way that doesn’t undermine those already limited protections. The draft permit proposed by BRA and TCEQ’s Executive Director falls far short of doing even that, so the National Wildlife Federation has been participating in a contested case hearing in an effort to ensure that any permit issued to BRA meets at least that minimum test.

Chick Bend at Sunrise Brazos River below Possum Kingdom Lake 720x554

Chick Bend at sunrise, Brazos River below Possum Kingdom Lake. Picture courtesy of Charles Kruvand.


 Inadequate Implementation

For the past decade BRA, a wholesale water supplier, has been seeking a perpetual water permit from TCEQ for over 1 million acre-feet of water from the mid and lower Brazos Basin. For all practical purposes, that represents the remaining available water in the basin. Various parties, including the National Wildlife Federation, representing a wide variety of interests have been opposing different aspects of the application. The National Wildlife Federation is most concerned about the potential adverse impact on environmental flows in the river.

BRA proposes to use a total of only 13 measuring points to protect river flows from the effects of diversions at an unlimited number of diversion locations and of impoundment in 11 reservoirs spread across more than 1,200 miles of the Brazos River and 7 tributaries. BRA’s approach would allow portions of the rivers to be pumped dry while still being treated as complying with the flow standards. That makes no sense. In addition, the flow standards state that pulse flows—biologically important high flow events occurring after heavy rains which increase in size as they move downstream with the rainfall—can’t be impounded, which ensures the timing and function of the pulses are not impaired. Despite that, the draft permit would allow BRA temporarily to impound pulse flows, without a limit on how long a temporary impoundment could last.

TCEQ has not only failed to set sufficiently protective standards, but TCEQ’s Executive Director, by supporting the proposed permit, has also failed to adequately implement the standards the agency did set. Strangely, TCEQ’s Executive Director argues that the adopted S.B. 3 standards replace all other environmental reviews for granting a water right. This stance completely disregards protection of riparian habitat, reservoir fisheries and water quality, and groundwater resources; all areas that must be evaluated under Texas Water Law before a water right may be granted.

The Dangerous Path Forward

 Without adequate implementation of the environmental flow standards, BRA’s application fails to protect a sound ecological environment; the intent of creating the standards in the first place. Granting a perpetual water right this large will determine the future of flows in the Brazos basin. Allowing the standards to replace other environmental review could change the water right permitting process from here on, decreasing the rigor that TCEQ must use in protecting all of Texas’ river basins with the potential to leave some Texas streams high and dry.

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

December 17, 2014

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 mining for roads, burial by sediment such as during Hurricane Ike, and other forms of reef destruction. Reduced freshwater inflows also adversely affect oysters. Today, oyster reefs are mainly located in the middle to lower region of the Bay (Fig. 1). Reefs are maintained on both publicly and privately owned leases through oyster shell recycling and reef restoration.  Oysters require existing reefs or cultch, a mixture of oyster shell, limestone rock, and other similar material, that when placed in oyster spawning areas, provides a base for oyster spat (free-swimming larvae) to attach. Restoration programs replace cultch and help rebuild the reef that is removed during harvest. The largest oyster restoration project in Texas history occurred this year in East Galveston Bay with restoration of 180 acres of publicly owned reef.

oyster map

Figure 1. Map of  named oyster reefs (shown in white) in Galveston Bay. 

Adult oysters are sessile (can’t move), and are therefore especially susceptible to fluctuating water quality conditions. Ideal conditions for oysters include good water circulation, warm temperatures (68 to 86oF), and a moderate salinity of 10-20 parts per thousand or ppt (freshwater = 0 ppt and ocean water = 35 ppt). Depending on the conditions, oysters take about 18 months to grow from spat (free swimming larvae) to a 3-inch harvestable size. Because of this long growing period, effects of drought and poor water quality conditions can lag a couple of years making it difficult to pinpoint the effects of these stressors, or the cumulative impact if multiple stressors are available.

Oysters prefer a moderate salinity and freshwater is essential to creating and maintaining this preferred salinity gradient. For example, in June 2010 Galveston Bay experienced freshwater inflows from the San Jacinto and Trinity Rivers of about 745,000 acre-feet per month, the long-term median inflow for a month. This amount of freshwater flowing into the Bay helped produce mid-Bay (prime location of oyster reefs) salinities within the preferred 10-20 ppt range (Fig. 2A). During 2011, the combined effects of drought and water withdrawals greatly reduced freshwater inflows causing the Bay to shift to a saltier environment (Fig. 2B).  At high salinities, predators such as the oyster drill (a snail) and the disease Dermo (a parasite) increase, which lead to reduced oyster production.

salinity maps

Figure 2. The 2011 drought in context. (A) June 2010 is an example of an historic median flow (745,000 acre-feet per month) that helps to create a suitable salinity for oyster populations. (B) September 2011 is an example of low freshwater inflow period (160,000 acre-feet per month) that if sustained is detrimental to oyster populations. Model projections courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation.

 Although freshwater inflows are not the only factor influencing oyster health, this key aspect helps maintain oyster harvests when other water quality pressures are present.  Data assessed in 2002 showed that localized sections in the Upper Texas Coast are not suitable for harvesting shellfish because of elevated bacteria concentrations. High bacteria levels pose a human health risk because oysters and other shellfish accumulate the bacteria in parts of their bodies. Several efforts are currently underway to improve water quality so that the oyster beds are routinely safe for harvesting.

What does the crystal ball say?

So, can we predict the outcome of the 2014-2015 harvest? We know oysters need existing reef for new oysters to grow, good water circulation and water quality, and adequate freshwater inflows. Oyster harvests are influenced by multiple factors including water diversions, drought and other large scale climatological events, variable fuel prices, weather, and water quality conditions.  Drought conditions for parts of the Trinity-San Jacinto-Galveston Bay watershed have lifted, fuel prices have declined, and we’re predicted to have a wetter winter. All of these point to better conditions for the 2014-2015 season than we saw last year.  However, the jury is still out until the end of the season. While we’re waiting for the outcome, go enjoy some fresh, juicy Galveston Bay oysters!

Texas’ Courts Legal Treatment of Groundwater is Fluid

November 20, 2014

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 so, in large part, because it determined the existence and movements of groundwater were too “secret” and “occult” to be understood. Rule of capture is also the legal doctrine applied in oil and gas law. Recently, water rulings in some Texas courts have increased the parallels to oil and gas law, such as the line of cases of Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day and Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Bragg, that held groundwater is a vested private property right in place, subject to governmental taking. Because it was a question of first impression, the court looked to oil and gas precedent to make its decision.

Although there have been increased references to oil and gas law in water rulings determining ownership, a recent court decision decided not to apply another principle that exists in oil and gas property rights. This makes it a struggle to know what principles courts will apply to water in the future.

In July, Texas’ Seventh Court of Appeals ruled in The City of Lubbock, Texas v. Coyote Lake Ranch, LLC, that the oil and gas law based principle of the accommodation doctrine does not apply to groundwater. In oil and gas law, the accommodation doctrine states that the mineral estate is the dominant estate; therefore, surface owners must allow access to the mineral estate holder and cannot thwart his or her ability to drill or produce. In return, the mineral rights owner is legally obligated to be considerate and reasonable in his or her use of the surface estate, using whatever means of access to the oil and gas are least damaging to the surface.

In this case, the City of Lubbock was the holder of a 1953 deed conveying groundwater rights under a certain tract of land. These rights were severed from surface property that is currently owned by Coyote Lake Ranch. Beginning in 2012, the City of Lubbock began planning to install water wells to pump the groundwater it purchased. Coyote Lake Ranch asked the court for a temporary injunction and restraining order to stop that from happening, arguing that the water could be accessed without entering its land. The district court granted the request and the City appealed the decision.

The Seventh District ruled that, while some oil and gas principles still apply to water, such as those laid out in the Edwards Aquifer Authority cases mentioned above, the accommodation doctrine does not apply when groundwater rights are severed from the rights of the surface owner. In other words, the groundwater estate holder is not obligated to pump in the least destructive manner. Not applying the accommodation doctrine cuts both ways. In addition to not obligating the groundwater estate holder to pump groundwater in the least destructive manner, the surface owner may not be obligated to allow access to the groundwater through his or her property. The burden for both of these obligations is shifted to the terms of the sales contract.

This failure of the court to follow an oil and gas tenet in groundwater law may foretell of a break from the basic oil and gas law structure. Or it may simply show that courts are becoming more aggressive in the allowances they give to water pumpers.

The fact that Texas courts still apply oil and gas law’s basic Rule of Capture to groundwater seems to support the latter assumption; however, courts should consider a departure from the oil and gas structure, since groundwater is interconnected to surface water through the hydrologic cycle. Courts should stop relying on oil and gas principles and realize that there are now a plethora of water law attorneys who are capable of understanding a new framework.

California used to apply the Rule of Capture, but recently saw the error of its ways and amended its groundwater rules in light of the pervasive and continuing drought. Texas needs to take a lesson from California and continue increasing the regulation of groundwater pumping, in a manner that makes sense for this precious resource and doesn’t simply follow the basic structure of oil and gas law.

Next Steps for San Antonio’s Vista Ridge Project

November 07, 2014

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 Vista Ridge could help reduce pumping on the Edwards. But the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has made no written commitment to reducing pumping from the Edwards once Vista Ridge comes on-line.

And what happens down the road?

Pumping 50,000 acre-feet from aquifers in Burleson County is not sustainable. Groundwater models have shown that this amount of pumping will result in over 300 feet of drawdown in water levels. San Antonio is not worried about this because the Vista Ridge partners are assuming the risk of groundwater cutbacks and San Antonio only has to pay for the volume of water actually delivered.

But San Antonio should be worried. SAWS assumes ownership of the pipeline to Burleson County in 30 years, as well as a right to renew the groundwater leases. Only, what happens if there is not enough water? San Antonio is relying on the water for growth. If that volume of water is not available after in the future– which it won’t be – San Antonio is going to return to fully pumping from the Edwards and seek yet another water supply costing billions of dollars.

Conservation and Land Use

Another aspect of this project that created concerns for environmentalists is that the influx of water could deter SAWS from continuing to maximize conservation efforts. Several council members asked SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente to pledge a continued commitment to a strong water conservation program. Mr. Puente assured them that as long as he was President, he would continue such a commitment. Mr. Puente also noted that the 2012 SAWS Water Management Plan (WMP) calls for 16,000 acre-feet of water supply to come from water conservation by 2020.

That sounds great, but as council members Ron Nirenberg and Shirley Gonzales noted, that is just a promise and we should rely on the city to make good on it. Indeed, vigilance over the SAWS Water Conservation Plan is critical. Why? Because 1) SAWS’s 2012 WMP makes no commitment to water conservation past 2020; and 2) the public perception of some is that SAWS has already exhausted its opportunity for water savings from conservation. Councilman Saldana colorfully noted this when he stated that SAWS has ‘cut to the bone on using that tool’.

Even though SAWS’ has made great strides on conservation, there is much more left to do. New water conservation programs have shifted from reducing indoor savings to reducing outdoor water use by offering landscape coupons and irrigation rebates and consultations. As outdoor water use accounts for up to 50% SAWS’ water summer usage, water savings from these programs can reap significant savings.   Demand-reduction programs need to continue and SAWS should commit to maintaining the amount it spends per customer on these programs.

In addition to SAWS’ President, Council also made commitments towards water conservation. One fact the Vista Ridge discussion highlighted was that all growth is not created equal and while SAWS is responsible for conservation programs, they can’t do everything. The city needs to manage growth to ensure the sustainability of existing water resources.

Specifically, Mayor Ivy Taylor expressed an interest in examining current land use ordinances to assist in water protection.   This is critical for two reasons. First, much of the new development in San Antonio is over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge zone. Not only do these new developments use more water, they threaten the recharge and water quality of the Edwards. Second, the landscaping of these new homes defines the size of its water footprint. Xericaped lawns without irrigation systems have a much different impact than lawns with large lots of irrigated turf grass. This is where the city can and should play a role. Limitations on the amount of turf, particularly in the front lawns, as well as requiring that irrigation systems can only be installed after-market with proper inspection would help control the water demands of new homes while still ensuring their appeal.

Buying water from Vista Ridge should mark the beginning of a public recommitment to water conservation and aquifer protection in San Antonio. SAWS, City Council, and the citizens of San Antonio should work together to put ordinances in place that redefine this commitment.





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

October 28, 2014

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 come together in early November to learn about the newest tools and best practices for designing rate structures to protect the financial stability of water utilities while also encouraging efficient use of scarce water supplies. If that includes you, we hope that you can join us for the Financing Sustainable Water workshops.

The Importance of Getting it Right

Why is this important? Water utilities across Texas have acknowledged in the State Water Plan that water conservation will be a big part of meeting future water supply needs in Texas. According to the plan, 7% of our future municipal water supplies are projected to result from improved water use efficiency. If you are a numbers person, that means we need to achieve 647,000 acre-feet of municipal water conservation by 2060.

In Texas we are taking the long-view and realize that using water more efficiently is the best option for our water supply, for our pocket books and for the environment.

Without appropriate adjustments, improved water conservation can mean lower revenues. Utilities need to design rates that will enable them to keep pace with the cost of providing clean water to millions of households in Texas while selling less of their product. This is a challenge across the state and cities like Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Wichita Falls and Fort Worth have been taking a hard look at their rate structures and water use to find the right balance.

Using less water will not necessarily mean that Texans will see a corresponding decrease on their water bills. It is important to understand that the cost of having reliable water includes much more than just the cost of purchasing, treating and delivering the water. Utilities have to account for the construction and maintenance of the infrastructure used to capture the water, the equipment to treat and move water around, and, finally, they have to pay the staff that makes it all happen.

The cost of doing business is going up and unfortunately many water utilities have not kept their rates on par with what is needed to maintain infrastructure and provide a quality product. In part, this is the result of many years of building bigger and bigger infrastructure to meet peak demand—those summer days when more than half of our water may go to inefficient outdoor irrigation. Building a system to meet that high demand pushes up cost year round. That’s where water conservation comes in; utilities and customers can avoid those costs using by planning ahead water efficiently. When evaluating conservation against other programs, deferred cost benefits that can result from conservation should be a factor. Bringing in new water supplies and upsizing infrastructure to serve increasing water demands is very expensive (much more expensive than providing conservation programs).

Efficiency helps our water supplies last longer so that we can serve more people and businesses with the same amount of water. In the long run, good conservation programs will end up saving water customers money.

If you work at a water utility, we encourage you to attend the Financing Sustainable Water Workshop in Houston on November 12th or in Dallas on November 13th. If you are a decision maker that has to ultimately approve these rate changes it is important for you to attend and understand the options that your utility has to balance rates and efficiency. If you are an interested water conservation advocate who isn’t afraid of the details, you also are welcome.

What to Expect at the Workshop

Experts will cover the newest resources and strategies available to water managers, including:

  • Access to the latest research and strategies to model and evaluate rates that achieve revenue stability and incentivize efficiency
  • The latest policies and planning tools to enhance utilities’ financial outlook
  • How cost-effective efficiency programs support revenue management and fiscal sustainability
  • Proficiency in using the latest ratemaking tools available and confidence to apply them

Participants in the one-day meeting will also receive in-depth training on the new Alliance for Water Efficiency Sales Forecasting and Rate Model – an innovative, free, and user-friendly tool that can help managers explicitly model rate structures and effects on revenue and water use. This model addresses the shortcomings of typical models – which assume that future sales are known and do not respond to factors such as weather, price, and the economy – and helps answer questions such as:

  • What block rate design could allow us to preserve our current level of revenue while reducing demand?
  • What proportion of customer bills in each class will increase under new proposed rates?
  • How should we adjust rates to support demand management objectives during water shortages?
  • What is the likelihood we will meet one-year, three-year, and five-year revenue targets? 

Please plan on joining us in November for this important community event.