Texas is confronting a looming water crisis that state leaders have been slow to address, even though the problem has been out in the open for years.
If leaders don’t take concrete steps to avoid the crisis, we’re in trouble, says Billy R. Bradford Jr., chairman of the Texas Water Development Board. This warning was the crux of Bradford’s keynote address at Thursday’s Valley Environmental Summit 2012, held at the Brownsville Events Center.
It’s not for lack of planning. Since 1997 the state has spent $80 million — much of it taxpayer money — putting together a 300-page water plan that covers the entire state, which is divided into 16 regions. Cameron County and the Rio Grande Valley are contained in Region M. The plan was crafted “from the bottom up,” he said, meaning that regional water boards were tasked with tailoring their own plans.
“We spent a ton of money doing this,” Bradford said. “It’s a wonderful document, but it’s an expensive document.”
Among the things contained in the current version of the Texas Water Plan, which is updated every year, is a projection that the state’s population will increase 82 percent over the next 50 years. Region M, it’s projected, will grow faster than the rest of the state — 142 percent over the next half century, which means almost 4 million people will be living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley by 2060.
“It’s fantastic in some ways, because population growth typically means economic growth,” Bradford said.
The downside is there won’t be enough water to go around unless the state comes up with a more drought-tolerant water supply, he said. At the same time population is projected to explode, water resources are projected to decline, partly because reservoirs silt up over time and their capacity becomes diminished.
And then there are the droughts that hit Texas on a regular basis. The upshot is that, if nothing is done, the state will be 9 million acre-feet short of water each year. An acre-foot is the volume of water it takes to cover one acre to a depth of one foot. This will deeply impact residents, businesses and agriculture.
The TWDB was created in 1957 following a devastating seven-year drought in Texas. It happened again in 1996, and again in 2002, Bradford said. Then came the drought of 2011 — the single driest year in the state’s history. It happened to coincide with the 2011 session of the Texas Legislature, and Bradford hopes it got lawmakers’ attention.
“I would anticipate that when the Legislature convenes again in January, water is going to be front and center,” he said.
That would be something new. Bradford is a firm believer that seawater desalination could solve the state’s water woes, but complains that after a decade of discussion of a large-scale desalination demonstration project the state has failed to fund it. In 2007, the Brownsville Public Utilities Board, following a successful desalinization pilot study, announced it was ready to proceed with a large-scale demo project that would create 25 million gallons of potable water a day. The TWDB requested $70 million grant from the state, with BPUB kicking in half the cost. In 2008 lawmakers denied the request.
Two years later, TWDB’s request for $28 million for a downsized, 2.5-gallon-a-day demo project was also denied. On 2011 — the driest year in Texas history — a $9.5 million request for a further downsized demo project was denied as well.
“The problem we have in Texas isn’t planning” Bradford said. “The problem is implementation.”
The funding denials aren’t a huge surprise in light of the state’s budget challenges, he added. Bradford thinks lawmakers understand the state’s water issues well enough but that the price tag of implementing the state water plan scares them.
Total implementation of projects in all 16 regions would cost $231 billion, according to the plan, though Bradford notes that “we don’t need all of it today.” Meanwhile, TWDB has the lending capacity to make loans available to help regions implement their projects. TWDB has not yet included a demo project grant proposal in its 2012 Legislature Appropriations Request, Bradford said. BPUB, meanwhile, is still ready to go on a demo project. Funding it might have to depend on a public-private partnership, he noted.
Bradford admitted he’s disappointed that seawater and brackish water are given a low priority in among the 16 regions’ recommendations for dealing with the encroaching water crisis. Reservoir construction is much higher on the list, for instance, though he cautions that reservoirs aren’t as popular as they once were and face numerous environmental obstacles.
Desalination should be explored as a serious alternative — especially considering that 60 percent of the state’s population lives within 150 miles of the Gulf coast, Bradford said. Once thing is certain: Texas needs to stop dragging its heels on implementation of a water plan, he said.
“The message I want to leave you with: Let’s get started,” Bradford said.