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2012-12-06

Water For Texas 2012 - Part I

Milan J. Michalec BCC Contributor

(Editor's note: Michalec is a director on the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District.)

With the effects of last year's drought still lingering throughout much of Texas, water is the issue that would be expected to dominate the 2013 Legislature. But will it?
In the meantime, by increasing our water awareness we can make better choices about the ways we use water as lawmakers consider water needs amongst other competing legislative priorities.
This first of a four-part series begins with the state of our present and future water needs as they are spelled out in the state water plan. In Part II, learn what it will cost to implement the plan.
Part III concentrates on the need for Texas as a whole to conserve water in the future while the conclusion to the series presents what you specifically can do to conserve this resource to meet your needs today.
No matter what happens next year in Austin, the cost of investment in water is expected to be significant - huge and the time required to develop "new" water will generally be long - many years. In the near term, there are options to make better use of the water that is available now.
Tipping that scale in your favor, through your action, can lead to your water independence.
Drought highlights state water plan
The unexpected recent severe drought may have led to an increase of public awareness today, but when considering the years ahead of us, we all must recognize that water will become an even more scarce resource as population swells.
If you think this drought is over, think again. In the most recent climate assessment by the Texas State Climatologist, Dr. John Neilsen-Gammon states: "What was the worst one-year drought on record for Texas has lasted for two years so far."
Should this drought persist, the newest version of Texas's State Water Plan, published by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), clearly states the seriousness of what the future may hold.
The primary message of the 2012 State Water Plan is a simple one: "In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises."
This is because Texas water planning requires applying a "worst case scenario"- the effect of a drought of record on existing water supplies - water that is both legally and physically available.
By definition, the Texas drought of record is generally considered to have occurred from about 1950 to 1957. However, far worse droughts throughout several thousand years of history have been documented in recent tree ring studies.
Fortunately, a number of Texas leaders have realized our lives and livelihood - our economic future, is directly linked to how well we meet our water needs both today and tomorrow. Particularly noteworthy is a repeated call for a "Manhattan-project type water program."
According to the US Congressional Research Service, the cost to develop a wartime nuclear weapon capability - The Manhattan Project, over five fiscal years, adjusted to 2008 dollars, was $22 billion.
To put this in perspective, consider that the estimated capital cost to implement the recommended water management strategies in the 2012 State Water Plan is $53 billion. This represents the cost of the infrastructure that would, or could, treat and move water to an end user.
It is only part of the $231 billion that would be needed to pay for all water related requirements such as the replacement of aging water systems infrastructure, wastewater treatment, and flood control for the next 50 years.
Indeed, it could be said Texas has already initiated its own version of The Manhattan Project.
Of the $53 billion, water providers estimate that $27 billion will be needed in government financial assistance. Of this figure, approximately $16 billion is essentially needed now - from the years 2010-2020.
This leaves roughly $26 billion to be funded from sources elsewhere. That logically would leave either the rate payers or the water industry itself to foot the bill. The alternative is legislative action and something few want to hear - new taxes or new fees to pay for water.
The plan identified 562 "potentially feasible" water management strategies. The completion of each of these strategies is subject to political will and many may never actually be completed.
If you're wondering about how to track the progress on these strategies, the TWDB currently lacks a formal mechanism to do so. Beginning with the 2016 Regional Water Plans, progress reports will be required and will be included in the 2017 State Water Plan.
Obviously we are not talking about funding for projects to counter the threat of an armed enemy, but we are contemplating investment that could be considered a threat and certainly an enemy - debt.
How much are we willing to pay for the water of tomorrow? The answer clearly impacts our future economic viability and the 2012 State Water Plan illustrates what it will cost should we try to continue to build ourselves out of our water problems.
(Author's note: Everyone will have a share in Texas's water bill. Part II of this series will begin to explain how big it really is.)