If Texas maintains its current rate of water use into 2060 without finding a way either to conserve significant amounts of water or to develop new sources, the state will experience a gap between demand and availability.
It will need another 9 million acre-feet to supply a population expected to be nearly double today’s, says Comer Tuck, who works with water conservation efforts for the Texas Water Development Board.
Tuck, along with panelists Greg Ellis, GM Ellis Lawfirm PC, Houston, and Tom McLemore, project manager, Harlingen Irrigation District, discussed challenges of providing adequate water to a growing population during the recent Texas Produce Conference at San Antonio.
Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon offered a less than optimistic weather outlook. (See related story here.)
Conservation, Tuck says, will be a crucial part of the state’s water strategy, and agriculture will make a significant contribution. Municipal conservation will account for 7 percent of a water savings plan; re-use will account for 10 percent; and conservation in irrigation will account for 17 percent of conservation efforts.
New water sources will also be part of the plan, with new reservoirs to account for 17 percent of additional water. Other surface water, including renewed contracts that expire within the 50-year water contract period, accounts for 34 percent of additional water sources.
The State Water Plan, Tuck says, calls for 1.25 million acre-feet in increased conservation by 2020 and 1.5 million acre-feet of conservation by 2060. Some funds are available to help meet those conservation goals. “We have limited funds available through the Texas Water Development Board at low interest rates,” he says.
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Also, a bond-based program is available, but little used because of bond market rates.
Recent action by the Texas state legislature provides $2 billion in funds to help implement the state water development plan.
Ellis discussed the recent legislative action that “dedicated money to water development.”
Costly water plan
Full implementation of the state’s water development plan will require $57 billion. The $2 billion allotted by the legislature from the Texas Rainy Day Fund will be “leveraged through sophisticated methods,” to achieve greater funding. Ellis expects disagreements over how money is allotted, with municipalities — primarily Houston, San Antonio and Dallas —competing with other smaller cities and rural Texas for water development funds.
“Rural Texas does not have enough money to develop water plans,” Ellis says, “so the state plan is designed to help cover rural water plans. We have to make sure not to take water from rural areas to support urban areas. That will lead to some conflicts.”
He expects lawsuits. He also insists that conservation will be a significant part of water plans. “Conservation will need to be part of the application for funding,” he says. Attention to maintaining rural water sources in plans to move water to municipalities will also be important.
The state funds are “loans, not grants,” he notes.
Other laws may be forthcoming, but face hurdles in the legislature. An aquifer storage and recovery bill, for instance, offered potential for areas across the state. “The bill passed in the House, but died in the Senate,” Ellis says. A similar fate befell a brackish groundwater development proposal.
A large supply of brackish water is available deep, but is expensive to obtain and treat. “I think we should allow groundwater districts to set different rules for capturing brackish water,” he says.
Other water law action includes changing the Water Development Board from six part-time board members to three-full time members, who would be appointed by the governor in an advise-and-consent with the state legislature. “We expect announcement of appointments at any time,” Ellis says.
McLemore talked about real-world application of conservation measures. “We have to find more efficient ways to use agriculture water,” he says. “We have to stretch our supplies.”
He’s been involved with the Texas Project for Water Efficiency and discussed ways to conserve water. The need is real, he says. “Citrus needs 48 inches of water a year. It needs water year-round, but the Lower Rio Grande Valley averages only 24 inches a year.”
Changing the way growers water citrus has helped, he says. Instead of flooding orchards on a flat plane, producers use water more efficiently if they put up beds that move water closer to the trees. “That means more water for tree roots.”
Various projects also use moisture monitors and telemetry to evaluate water supply, demand and needed application rates. “We need to know the amount of water taken up by citrus and the amount of water needed to irrigate,” he says. “We measure how much is depleted. If we don’t measure, we may apply too much or not enough. Reducing water costs improves the bottom line.”
Delivery system waste
Most irrigation water waste occurs in the delivery system, McLemore says. “We need to measure what we put in the system and what we take out at the farm. We have to do more with less, and we have to improve the process of delivering water from the river to the farm. The key is to make the district operation more efficient by improving delivery systems — that’s where the loss is.”
Minimizing losses, enhancing system performance, and making precise delivery of water to farms with a strong head of water are goals. “If we do these things, we can cut surface water use in half,” he says.
Improving the infrastructure is crucial. Closed pipelines, automatic gates, telemetry, remote access with checks and alerts that allow “rapid response to solve problems,” are all part of an efficient delivery system.
Surge irrigation also offers water savings, “but there are no incentives to switch to surge now,” he says. A program currently in place that offers a few growers the opportunity to add surge irrigation at much reduced costs may be a start.
Rio Grande Valley growers “are optimistic about agriculture,” McLemore says. “Rain will come,but we have to be prepared to use a gallon of water as efficiently as we can. It’s time for Texas to invest in efficient water use.”