Best Bets for Texas Water

Interbasin transfers

In an interbasin water transfer, surface water is taken from one river basin and conveyed into another river basin for use there.

This map of average annual rainfall patterns across the state highlights the differences between Texas' "wet" and "dry" regions.

Within the large state of Texas and its different climate zones, there are very wet areas and very dry areas. Interbasin transfers are used to bring water from wetter areas to places where the demand for water exceeds readily available local water supplies.

As of 2014, there are more than 150 active interbasin transfer projects in Texas. The Dallas metroplex is one of several areas in Texas that receive a lot of interbasin transfers. Houston also receives significant amounts of water from interbasin transfers and is currently working on a project that would increase that amount.

In past legislative sessions, some Texas lawmakers have proposed creating a vast grid of water pipelines across Texas so that water can be delivered from areas of Texas with lots of rainfall to drier areas, especially in times of drought. This idea is likely to reemerge in future sessions.

Interbasin transfer regulations

There are various regulatory requirements that are intended to prevent people from withdrawing too much water from rivers for interbasin transfers. However, there have been attempts to weaken these regulations, and these attempts will likely continue.

All interbasin transfers require a permit or an exemption under Texas law, and the state requires that most major new transfer permit applications are carefully reviewed. This close scrutiny is meant to determine:

  • Whether there is a reasonable balance of benefits to the basin receiving the water vs. detriments to basin providing the water;
  • Whether the permit applicant demonstrates a strong commitment to water conservation; and
  • What the potential impacts on water quality and the environment may be.
  • (There are some specific exceptions to these criteria, including water transfers within a single city or county, from outside the state, or from one river basin to an adjacent coastal basin.)

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is responsible for deciding whether these permit applications fulfill the above criteria. Unfortunately, the agency’s review process has sometimes fallen seriously short.

Interbasin transfers report card
This strategy is promising on some fronts, but there are some real concerns.

These water transfers to date have not been subjected to strong river flow protections for the basins of origin. Theoretically, transferred water could help struggling rivers and wildlife in dry areas of the state. Note: If a transfer requires a new reservoir rather than using an existing one, the project would receive an “empty water drop” grade.

True costs
When compared to other strategies, it’s hard to see the benefit of this one.

Interbasin transfers are usually expensive on their own, with extensive infrastructure and energy costs, and they may often require a new reservoir to be constructed as well.

Long-term viability
This strategy is promising on some fronts, but there are some real concerns.

Interbasin transfers could help sustain struggling dry areas of the state. However, without careful balancing, this could be to the detriment of the basins that supply the water. High energy needs are also a long-term concern. This strategy is only viable when the basin receiving a water transfer already has strong water conservation measures and will use the new water wisely.

Interbasin transfers grade breakdown
Environmental impacts
  • Transfers from a basin with more available water to a basin that is already very water-short could potentially improve river flows in the receiving basin; however, this depends on how the receiving basin manages the water and what the water availability and river flow situations are like in the basin of origin.
  • Just because some areas have water that isn’t being consumed doesn’t mean rivers and wildlife won’t be adversely impacted when water is taken away and transferred to a different basin. When water is moved out of a basin it is completely lost to that basin, which may rob fish, wildlife and plants of the fresh water they need and deprive communities of a valued recreational resource and future water supply.
  • The standards set by Texas’ regulatory water agency, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), for how much river flow needs to be protected for the environment are not strong enough to truly sustain healthy rivers and wildlife. This means interbasin transfer permits likely won’t be adequately limited, and may not leave enough fresh water in the basin of origin for healthy rivers, bays and wildlife.
  • Constructing pipeline or canal systems requires cutting through many different environments and land types, which can seriously damage wildlife habitat.
  • When water is moved from one basin to another, tiny aquatic species and organisms may come with it, depending on how the water is transferred. This can introduce non-native species to a new basin, which can become invasive and threaten the area’s plants, wildlife and water supply infrastructure.
The pressures of growth are pretty much a normal human phenomenom, but we're losing things that I think our grandkids won't forgive us for. So we have to be careful.
True costs

1 Initial costs typically include acquiring land for pipelines or canals, constructing pipeline systems and treatment plants, and disturbing land to build canals or bury pipes. Interbasin transfer projects often also require a new reservoir to be constructed to capture the water and make it available for transfer; reservoirs are costly and have their own true costs associated.

2 Energy is a big cost throughout the life of the transfer. This is especially true when the pipeline does not run naturally downhill, which is usually the case for transfers in Texas.

3 Interbasin transfers may introduce invasive species from basins of origin to the receiving basins. Dealing with invasive species is costly and incredibly time-intensive, and invasive species have been known to seriously threaten the survival of native species and damage water management infrastructure.

Long-term viability

1 As water supplies become scarcer and droughts become more frequent and intense, dry areas can benefit from piping in water supplies that likely aren’t available to them locally.

2 At the same time, basins where water is being removed from will likely have greater needs for this fresh water over time. It may rapidly become unsustainable to continue removing it from the rivers due to impacts on wildlife as well as the recreational and economic activities in the basin of origin.

3 Infrastructure wears out over time, and interbasin transfers require a lot of it; already, Texas is having to replace piping from the 1950s. Although these kinds of water infrastructure projects use more durable materials now, it is still expensive and burdensome to replace.

4 If not designed sustainably, interbasin transfers can allow and even encourage growth and unsound water use practices in areas that cannot otherwise sustain the population; meanwhile, the basin that the water is removed from has less available water because it is supporting another basin’s unsustainable growth.

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