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.

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