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Workman: The future of water in Texas

During the recent drought, my office heard constantly from people concerned about the lack of water in our lakes. But now that the lakes are full and people are enjoying their boats and beautiful sunsets, a lot of people seem to be under the impression that we are out of the woods. I don’t think we are. There is no doubt we have been given a reprieve, but there is no way to know how long that may last. Now is the time to focus on ensuring an adequate water supply for the future.

The state’s population is expected to increase to about 46 million by the year 2060. That is a whole lot of Texans who will need water for drinking, cooking, bathing, gardening and many other uses. The Water Development Board estimates existing water supplies to decrease by 18 percent in that time frame while demand is expected to increase by 27 percent.

There are several strategies the state can explore to make sure future generations of Texans don’t run out of water. One strategy that we must embrace is desalination, both brackish and seawater.

I recently joined a Texas delegation to Israel to learn about how they manage their water. Over the past several decades, Israel has used desalination technology to transform itself from a state with a water shortage to a state that exports water, even while their population continues to grow. Desalination is the process of removing salt from water in order to make it usable for industrial customers or potable for residential users. It is amazing how this technology has provided this small nation with a reliable water supply.

With more than 360 miles of coastline and roughly two-thirds of the state’s population living within 150 miles of the coast, Texas is ideally situated for the development of seawater desalination projects, yet we currently have none planned. We as a state must make a commitment to developing this technology. I propose the construction of three 100 million gallon per day seawater desalination plants along the Texas coast.

Furthermore, there are more than 30 inland aquifers with an estimated 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish water as compared to only 31.6 million acre-feet of capacity in our surface water reservoirs. And while Israel may have the largest seawater desalination plant in the world, the largest inland brackish water desalination plant in the world is located in El Paso.

Beyond desalination, some have proposed moving to a statewide water grid. In a state with a population exploding the way ours is, we are eventually going to need a way to transfer water around the state to make sure that all Texans have access to a reliable supply of clean drinking water, not just those living in areas blessed with an abundance of water.

Interbasin transfers are simple in concept and have been in use in Texas since the early 20th century. For example, if the Sabine River basin in East Texas has an abundance of water, it makes sense for a drought-stricken region of the state to purchase water from the Sabine basin. The purchasing region would receive the water it needs while the basin from which the water was transferred would be financially compensated. There are a number of such transfers active in Texas. Yet there is still significant resistance to interbasin transfers.

The area I represent – southern and western Travis County – sits in the Hill Country Priority Groundwater Management Area, or PGMA. The PGMA was designated in 1990 because of the potential of groundwater shortages. To date, western Travis County is the only portion of the eight-county Hill Country PGMA that remains without a groundwater conservation district.

I will be filing legislation in January to create a groundwater conservation district for Southwest Travis County.

I understand how difficult it can be to overcome the political nature of water fights, and how complicated our water infrastructure system is in the State of Texas.

Think about all the various agencies involved in our water supply: the Texas Water Development Board, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Public Utilities Commission, groundwater conservation districts, and aquifer and river authorities. We have river basins that run northwest to southeast and underground aquifers that run northeast to southwest. Groundwater conservation districts are organized along political subdivisions, not the aquifer they govern. Each one involves a lot of moving parts with strong constituencies.

Although water policy is complicated, I am confident that lawmakers are moving in the right direction to ensure a continued supply of water for all Texans.

State Rep. Paul D. Workman represents District 47 in the Texas House. He is a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees statewide water policy.

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