Conservation incentives and ASR need more attention in future State Water Plans

Plans for new surface water reservoirs in the State Water Plan came under fire from state legislators last week. Combined with the need to rethink how finance utilities conservation projects are financed, this drew attention to a greater need for long-term, realistic water conservation planning in Texas.

On June 1st, the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources held a public hearing to examine regional and state water planning processes. Representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Central Texas Water Coalition, Texas Water Development Board, Sierra Club Water Resources, and several others gave testimonies.

The committee was actively vocal regarding conservation efforts, needs, and concerns (namely Chair Jim Keffer, Lyle Larson, and James Frank). There were even a few acknowledgements to environmental water needs, from Representative Frank and Ed McCarthy, a water rights attorney. McCarthy stressed the need to examine the cumulative impact of numerous small water diversions near the Texas coast when granting water rights permits. Otherwise, he warned, it’s “death by a thousand cuts”—one small diversion may not have a large effect, but many such diversions can greatly decrease freshwater inflows in coastal areas, increasing coastal water salinity.

Throughout the hearing, conservation was called for the most cost-effective solution when it comes to water management.  Jo Karr, the President of the Central Texas Water Coalition, argued for more accountability for water use across the state through more comprehensive metering. “Conservation needs to be the #1 priority for all consumers, and [that] does not happen without metrics across the system.” There are several utilities that will be taking advantage of SWIFT loans this planning session to implement such utility conservation projects. However, Ken Kramer, Chair for Sierra Club Water Resources, pointed out that debt financing for conservation projects isn’t a great incentive for utilities to take out loans, since utility revenues decrease as customers use less water. Financing for these utility projects should be more realistic and  encouraging—not only for consumers, who will end up paying less as they consume less water, but for the utilities that transfer to more efficient systems. Kramer also stressed the need for a widespread education program for Texas utilities, especially smaller companies, to encourage conservation measures.

At the hearing, the Texas Water Development Board presented an overview of the adopted 2017 State Water Plan. Conservation and reuse make up 45% of recommended strategies, up from 34% in the 2012 Plan, and compared to 2012, aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) strategies, which store diverted surface water underground where it can’t evaporate, have seen a 35% increase are there are seven times more direct potable reuse (DPR) strategies. However, 45% of new water sources come from surface water projects, constructing pipelines to convey water from existing reservoirs and building 26 new major reservoirs (13% of that 45% surface water figure).

The committee was quite critical of this percentage compared to the 1.8% ASR figure. Chairman Keffer warned of the “enemy of evaporation” and others who testified, including Region A Planning Group Chair C.E. Williams, expressed concern over the incredibly large volumes of exposed water lost to evaporation, especially in our driest regions.

“We can do a lot better than what we’ve got,” Representative Larson responded, strongly suggesting that the percentages of projects for ASR and surface water be flipped: “There should be 13% ASR and maybe 2% surface water reservoirs.” He brought up how every state west of Texas have many ASR and desalination programs in place, conserving and preserving water (not even letting it flow down the Colorado River to Mexico). He stated “ASR is the future of water storage in the U.S.”

Representative Paul Workman suggested a way to make this flip a reality. In order to encourage innovation, positive multipliers should be put on strategies like ASR, brackish water use and desalination, with negative multipliers on surface water projects.

Bech Bruun, TWDB Chair, acknowledged these comments and agreed, stating the increase in ASR use shows the Water Plan is on the right track for future planning.