Thursday, December 20, 2012

Behind the scary water headlines


Behind the scary water headlines photo
Mary Kelly, former Environmental Defense Fund lawyer who heads the environmental consulting firm Parula, LLC.
By Mary E. Kelly 

It’s hard to look at any media in Texas today without being confronted by a dire outlook on the state’s water future. The jarring effects of a deep drought and the steep price tag attached to the state’s water plan definitely make for attention-grabbing copy. But for those who care about sustainable management of our limited water resources, property rights and fiscal discipline in the state budget, it’s worth a look behind those headlines.

There is little disagreement that it is time for action. However, instead of throwing money at unnecessary, expensive reservoir projects that would inundate productive private lands, state funding should come with a clear set of priorities that focus on water efficiency, land stewardship and developing the science and technology that we need for a sustainable future.

Layered upon the eye-opening stories of drought are predictions that Texas population may grow by more than 80 percent by 2060. Based on that projection — which may itself be overstated — the state water plan proposes at least $53 billion in new water supply projects, including over 20 proposed new reservoirs, with half of that cost to be picked up by state taxpayers. The staggering price tag is based on a projected increase in annual statewide water use, from about 14 million acre-feet today to over 22 million acre-feet by 2060 (at current rates of use, an acre-foot is roughly enough water for three Austin households for a year).

Appropriating billions of dollars to “fund the water plan” won’t bring the rain our land, lakes, rivers and aquifers need to recover from drought. Instead, we have to recognize the stark, if unpleasant, reality: a growing Texas is faced with the challenge of learning to live within our water limits.
Nevertheless, there is an important role for state funding in moving Texas towards a more sustainable water future. Here is a proposed four-point approach:

First: Get realistic about projected water demand. The Legislature should not take the inflated projections of the water plan as our inevitable fate.

The municipal sector accounts for the bulk of the increased use projected by the state plan. Adding up the forecasts made by regional water planning groups results in a projected 2060 municipal use of 8.4 million acre-feet per year, more than double the 2010 use of 4.1 million acre-feet per year reported by the Texas Water Development Board.

One region of the state (centered on the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex) accounts for almost a third of the projected municipal water demand increase by 2060. Many cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area project that each customer will still be using about the same amount of water in 2060 as a customer does today (well over 200 gallons per capita per day). Regional planners then added a 25 percent “contingency factor” to bump up projected demand even further. This contrasts with 2060 per capita projections in El Paso, San Antonio, Houston and other cities of less than 150 gallons per capita per day. Not coincidentally, the DFW region is proposing big-ticket reservoirs and pipelines as necessary to meet demand by 2060.

The legislature should not encourage these and other overinflated demand projections by allocating state funds now for condemning productive private lands for reservoirs that may never be necessary. Instead, the state should be willing to allocate taxpayer funds only to those projects that meet demonstrable, near-term water needs in a cost-effective manner and where local funding is insufficient to pay the project cost. Furthermore, the Legislature should require the Texas Water Development Board to review per capita projections made by the various regions to determine whether or not they are reasonable.

Second: Focus on efficiency. The clear trend over the last couple of decades shows that improved efficiency can help Texas live within its water limits, and efficiency strategies are almost always much cheaper than big new infrastructure projects. If there is going to be state money allocated, a sound fiscal approach means that it should first go to the literally hundreds of conservation strategies identified in the state water plan. We can serve many more people with the same amount of water.

Third: Support private land stewardship that benefits water resources. The farms and ranches at the heart of our state’s natural and cultural heritage give rise to the water flowing in our rivers and filling reservoirs and aquifers. These lands have suffered mightily during the recent extreme drought. The legislature should enact cost-effective, market-based incentives to help private landowners manage their properties in ways that build resilience to drought and enhance overall water supply for all Texans.

Fourth: Invest in the science, technology and institutions we need to sustainably manage water resources now and in the future. State agencies are struggling to maintain basic river flow monitoring and water rights administration; budgets for groundwater science have been cut; and many local groundwater districts lack sufficient resources to do their job well. Investing a reasonable amount of state funds in science and vital state and regional agencies to improve management of water is not frivolous spending, it’s essential to solid 21st century water management.

In addition, the state could spur private sector development of new technology. As innovations in El Paso and other areas have shown, both brackish groundwater desalination and water reuse can greatly ease pressure on limited freshwater resources and help drought-proof communities. Giving a modest boost to research and development in these areas would not only assist in meeting genuine water needs, it would likely create good-paying jobs and help Texas companies lead the way to better water management across the country.

As the 2013 Legislature tackles the state’s many pressing needs, water certainly should be on the agenda. The goal, however, must be a fiscally responsible package that promotes sustainable water management.

Mary Kelly, founder of environmental consulting firm Parula, LLC, is a water lawyer who provides environmental analysis and advocacy services to non-profits, foundations and other organizations. She previously held various positions with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Water for Texas 2012: You and the State Water Plan Part One-Drought Highlights State Water Plan

Part One-Drought Highlights State Water Plan

Milan J. Michalec

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 two, learn what it will cost to implement the plan.
Part three 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.

Part One-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 U.S. 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.

Michalec is a Director on the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District.
Author’s note: Everyone will have a share in Texas’s water bill. Part two of this series will begin to explain how big it really is.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fiscal Cliff Spending Cuts Threaten Rivers and Clean Water

2012-12-03-McKenzieRiverORAndorus.jpgThis holiday season, instead of visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, like many people in Washington and around the nation, I’m having nightmares about plunging over a cliff, the fiscal cliff.  Unless President Obama and Congress reach a deal before the end of the year to avert taking the nation over the fiscal cliff, automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, will go into effect.  These across-the-board cuts to federal programs could have devastating impacts on rivers and clean water.

Sequestration would result in cuts of millions of dollars to programs administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to restore fisheries like salmon and steelhead.  These programs have been responsible for highly successful river restoration efforts across the nation, where obsolete and unsafe dams are being removed to restore free-flowing rivers for fish, wildlife, and cities and towns that benefit, environmentally and economically, from the clean water and outdoor recreation opportunities provided by restored rivers.  On Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, two 100-year-old dams on the Elwha River have been removed, restoring 70 miles of habitat for salmon and steelhead, and in the process restoring a fishery on which the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has depended for centuries.

This holiday season, instead of visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, like many people in Washington and around the nation, I’m having nightmares about plunging over a cliff, the fiscal cliff.  Unless President Obama and Congress reach a deal before the end of the year to avert taking the nation over the fiscal cliff, automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, will go into effect.  These across-the-board cuts to federal programs could have devastating impacts on rivers and clean water. read more