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Why is Texas using old answers to address future water questions?

Fannin County is home to a small, rural Texas community about 70 miles northeast of Dallas. It’s also the future site of a $1.2 billion reservoir water supply project – an especially notable distinction, as it will be the first major reservoir constructed in Texas in more than 20 years.

The recently-approved Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir is a water supply strategy for the projected population growth in the Dallas area. Instead of moving forward through normal permitting channels, its approval relied on special legislation that supported its federal permit and sped up the project’s timeline. We can’t help but wonder: if a project requires cutting through the processes that protect taxpayers and wildlife habitat, is it really in the best interests of people and the environment? What shortcuts in the environmental review process were taken to meet the expedited deadlines?

Future site of Lower Bois d'Arc Creek Reservoir in Fannin County, Texas.

Future site of Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir. / Map: Environment Texas

Suspicious shortcuts aside, perhaps the most important question is this: Why a new reservoir now? You won’t find the answer to that here, because to this writer it is really not clear. One thing that is clear: before we look to Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir as the new norm for other projects waiting in the wings, we must be careful not to move backwards in our strategies for meeting water demands across the state. The solutions of the past do not always make sense for the future, where innovative strategies and greater conservation could take us to the same outcome: fresh water for all.

The changing landscape of water supply options

Construction of Canyon Lake Reservoir.

Construction of Canyon Lake Reservoir. / Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps

Reservoirs used to be the only game in town if you wanted to store water for projected population growth. Building a dam or digging a hole to hold water are both strategies that have been around since Texas’ inception. Today, with so many other options that are less detrimental to the environment and its wildlife, we should not simply turn to reservoirs as though they are the cure-all for providing water to a future population. Some of these other options include Aquifer Storage and Recovery, indirect reuse, and a growing water conservation movement that is making an impact on the water each person actually uses.

In fact, the 2017 Texas Water Plan lists new major reservoirs as only helping to supply 6.5 percent of Texas’ projected water needs in the 2020s, out of a list of 15 different strategy types.

This is one key reason why the argument that these new projects are essential seems to fall short. It’s also true that the Water Plan errs toward the side of overplanning, sometimes by a lot! Indeed, the Texas Water Development Board’s recently-released projections for future Texas water demands estimate a need for much less water than was claimed by previous projections. So the question remains whether any new reservoirs are actually necessary, given the availability of cheaper, more efficient strategies that reduce water demands, such as conservation, drought management, and conjunctive use.

The economics of reservoir-building

Despite new innovations and opportunities, reservoirs like Allens Creek in the Houston area, Cedar Ridge by Abilene, and Marvin Nichols and Lake Ralph Hall (both touted as potential Dallas-Fort Worth water supplies) are all still being pursued to address projected water shortages. And the total costs of constructing all of the proposed new major reservoirs, should they follow the path of the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir, are estimated at over $19 billion!

If their funding mechanisms are anything like Lower Bois d’Arc Creek’s, the costs will be at least partially covered through state-funded loans, which will be repaid through years of increased customer water rates. North Texans will be repaying the North Texas Municipal Water District’s loan for the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir for decades to come, and they will see it in their water bills.

The fact that a reservoir loses large amounts of water to evaporation alone makes it a questionable storage option for our limited water, as our Texas sun beats down hotter each year. Fiscally speaking, we should focus on the reservoirs we already have, rather than building new ones; the costs associated with the upkeep of existing reservoirs are so much lower than construction of a new reservoir. To make these existing reservoirs more effective, the U.S. Army Corps is starting to take a hard look at removing the sedimentation that builds up within reservoirs over the decades and decreases the actual amount of water a reservoir can hold.

Maintaining our existing reservoirs, rather than constructing new ones, just makes sense. They have already done the environmental damage of inundating acres of land with water. They have already done the damage to local humans and wildlife alike, displacing homes, flooding family farms and altering the surrounding ecosystem. So for those reservoirs looking to the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir to see how they can get through the permitting process, let’s show them that there are other options out there. Not every reservoir that was thought of is needed, and not every reservoir is the right fit for providing water to a city.

Our resources for water are as varied as our Texas climate, and as we look to the future, the holes we dig and the dams we build are not the approaches that will make Texas a leader in water planning. It’s the innovative new strategies, combined with a holistic effort to conserve and recycle the water we already use, that will make Texas a leader on the world water stage.

Annie Schmitt
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Annie Schmitt

Counsel at National Wildlife Federation
A former private practice attorney, Annie uses her past legal experience to represent wildlife and bring a voice for Texas’s rivers and streams to the negotiating table. She spends her free time mentoring students and traveling as much as possible, visiting (and rafting, canoeing or just floating in) different bodies of water.
Annie Schmitt
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1 Comment

  • David Venhuizen

    This reservoir will be the “cistern” for a watershed-scale rainwater harvesting system. It will store water that will be of rather degraded quality relative to the rain that fell from the sky, which is fairly “pure”, so it will need to be treated in a costly treatment plant, that will use a lot of energy. And a lot of energy will be used to pipe the water to the treatment plant, and then to distributed the water to end users. This distribution system will also lose a good bit of that water through leaks. And the reservoir will lose a HUGE amount of the gathered water to evaporation. As an example, the Highland Lakes lose more water to evaporation than Austin treats and uses each year.

    For $1.2 billion, you might install a building scale rainwater harvesting system for the equivalent of 30,000 homes, or more. (It was not stated how many homes the reservoir would supply.) The rainwater collected off rooftops would still be fairly “pure” and not need much treatment. Cartridge filtration and UV disinfection, having a fairly low energy draw. Also little energy would be used to distribute the water within the building. The distribution system would incur essentially no losses. The building-scale cisterns, being covered vessels, would incur very little evaporation loss.

    The potential of building-scale rainwater harvesting in the DFW Metroplex and its merits relative to building a reservoir is reviewed in https://waterblogue.com/2014/08/07/water-for-dfw-building-scale-rainwater-harvesting-vs-marvin-nichols/. Shows how it is quite feasible to do it there, and the relative merits to getting an equivalent supply from a conventional reservoir — in that piece the Marvin Nichols reservoir was in the crosshairs. It’s a matter of looking at the relative costs — including all the global factors noted above — and putting the policies in place to support it. Yet there is absolutely NO ONE at any level of state or local government looking at this. Seems all concerned would rather take people’s land and causes all sorts of other disruptions — e.g., those rising house costs will no doubt force people out of their homes outside the lakebed too, due to rising taxes. Real responsible, no?

    Now I ask you, which of these models is more sane? Collect high quality water, very efficiently, where it falls and use it there, OR collect it at very low efficiency, with impaired quality, over the whole watershed, then lose a bunch – and use a lot of energy – running it through a looong loop – to replace the water that fell there to begin with?

    Okay, rhetorical question. Movin’ on …

    May 4, 2018 at 10:23 am

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