A new water authority that could help members pool their supplies and collaborate to tap into new ones is just beginning to recruit in Williamson County.
The organizers behind the Lone Star Regional Water Authority, a nonprofit created by the Legislature in 2011, say the county’s fast-paced growth could come to a halt if it continues to count on lakes that public officials have started to acknowledge could run dry. They’ve contacted city and county governments, as well as other water suppliers, asking them to hop on board.
“It’s not a water problem we have. It’s an economic development problem we have,” said Mike Robinson, president of the authority. “In 1978, when I was first elected to the Round Rock City Council, we ran out of water and had to put a moratorium on all building permits. That was an economic disaster.”
Williamson County’s demand for water is projected to grow 185 percent between 2010 and 2060 — the largest increase of all Central Texas counties, according to a 2011 water plan from the Texas Water Development Board. By comparison, Travis County’s demand is projected to jump 90 percent in the same time frame and Hays County’s is expected to grow 178 percent.
There are more than 1,600 water organizations similar to the authority in the state, said Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
So far, though, the authority has encountered reluctance from cities that say they’ve already sunk their money into resources that will get them through the next 20-plus years, and might only be spurred to join in a crisis.
“We’ve invested our entire future in Lake Travis,” said Kent Cagle, Leander’s city manager. “Developing any other source of water is not economically feasible for the city of Leander at this time. But, if there’s no water in Lake Travis, then any other option is economically feasible.”
The cities of Georgetown and Cedar Park are not considering joining the authority at this time. Round Rock will take a “cold, hard look at it,” said city manager Steve Norwood.
The county’s major cities mostly draw their water from lakes, while smaller ones rely on well water.
Williamson County commissioners, who briefly discussed joining the authority at an August meeting, will take up the issue again within the next two weeks, said Dan Gattis, a county judge. When commissioners passed the 2013-14 budget, they set aside $23,000 for water expenditures, which could go toward the authority’s membership fee, Gattis said.
“Our issue is being a champion,” Gattis said. “We want to keep it in front of the public, that water is a major issue.”
Outside of Williamson County, the authority is also reaching out to Bell County, said Dan Dodson, the authority’s general manager.
Currently, the authority has two members — the Sonterra Municipal Utility District and the Capitol Land & Livestock Municipal Utility District — and has received an application from the city of Jarrell, which has forged water agreements with both in the past.
Each member pays a fee of $12,500 each year, which goes toward the authority’s operating costs, Robinson said. The fee would be lower if more members joined, he said.
The water authority can issue bonds on behalf of cities or take out a loan from the Texas Water Development Board to pay for major water, wastewater and drainage projects, Robinson said. That would allow cities to avoid going into debt, he said.
For instance, Jarrell issued $11 million in bonds to pay for a sewer plant several years ago and doesn’t have the funding to pay for the infrastructure needed to bring more water to the area, said City Manager Mel Yantis, adding that the city has locked down water for just the next five years. That’s why Jarrell is interested in a couple big undertakings the authority is looking at, Yantis said.
One is setting up a grid of pipes that would link all cities in the county, Robinson said. Then, cities could buy and sell water from one another.
David Mitchell, Hutto’s city manager, said joining the authority could help the city quickly sell its excess water, but that officials still need to evaluate whether it’s a sound deal.
The authority is also considering building a 50-mile pipeline that would pump groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, a massive aquifer that stretches across the state, to Williamson County along the Interstate 35 corridor. The project would cost about $30 million, said Jim Schwertner, a board member at the authority, and president and CEO of Capitol Land & Livestock.
In 2006, the county’s plans for a similar pipeline fell through, partly because there was distrust among water suppliers about who would be pulling the strings, Yantis said.
“I think there’s more likelihood for this to succeed,” Yantis said. “Regionalization is always the most efficient way to do it.”
The authority needs to act quickly if it wants to pull off a pipeline, said Bill West, general manager at the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority.
“There are several entities that are attempting to secure permits from the Carrizo,” West said. “There is a window associated with allocation of water rights out of the Carrizo and other aquifers across the state. In the next five years, if you haven’t secured a permit for a large project, the water will probably be allocated by that time.”
Hays County recently approved a deal to pay for the right to obtain groundwater from the aquifer in future years.