Monday, March 12, 2012

Limited Supply, Endless Thirst - Water Resources in Williamson County

First in series - How We Use Water
Published in the Sun March 11, 2012

“In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”  So writes Edward G. Vaughn, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) on September 23, 2011 in an open letter to the people of Texas introducing the TWDB 2012 State Water Plan.  But Texas is a diverse state and each region has unique water issues.  If the drought continues, is Williamson County at risk for shortages?  Where does our water come from?  As one of the fastest growing counties in the state, how will Williamson County deal with increased demand for this precious resource during future droughts?

In 1858 there were 3,779 people in Williamson County.  It rained 36 inches that year.  Average annual rainfall hasn’t changed over the years, but now 423,000 people live here with more arriving every day.  Every one of us wants to be able to turn on a tap and get unlimited amounts of clean water, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, winter and summer.  And we want water to be cheap.

Planning for the responsible development of Texas’ water resources is the mission of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB).  Every five years the TWDB researches and publishes a 50 year plan for each of 16 designated planning areas in the state.  Williamson County is in the Brazos G Regional Water Planning Area, along with 36 other counties in the Brazos River Basin.

Williamson County is the problem child of the Brazos G Region.  The rest of the region has enough water to meet projected demand until about 2045, but according to the 2012 TWDB State Water Plan, Williamson County may see shortages by 2020.

In 2010, the whole state of Texas used 17 million acre-feet of water.  (An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons.)  Sixty percent of Texas’ water was used to irrigate agricultural crops.  Statewide, only 27 percent of water usage was municipal, which includes all things town people do with water:  bathing, flushing, laundry, and cooking.  Municipal use also includes irrigation of lawns, by far the biggest use of water.   

The situation is very different in Williamson County.  Crop irrigation is miniscule.  Ninety-three percent of Williamson County’s 73,532 acre-foot demand is used by municipalities.  By 2060, when the population of the county is expected to exceed 1.1 million, municipal demand will rise to 97 percent of our county’s projected water usage of 211,854 acre-feet.

In view of increased demand and possible shortages, it would seem prudent to consider how we townies are using water and how we might use it more efficiently.  Glenn Dishong, Director of Georgetown Utility Systems, has some insight into the habits of his customers.  In the winter Georgetown customers use about 8 million gallons a day.  In the summer, consumption rockets up to 27 million gallons a day.  Since indoor activities like flushing and cooking can be assumed to continue at roughly the same rates in all seasons, Mr. Dishong calculates that 19 million gallons a day are being used to water grass and landscapes.  That means as much as 70 percent of our summertime water is going directly into the yard; water that has been piped from Lake Stillhouse to Lake Georgetown, treated to drinkable standards, and pumped to our houses at considerable expense.

Nationwide, indoor water usage averages 69 gallons per capita per day (gcd).  Currently Georgetown customers use water at an average rate of 200 gcd for indoor and outdoor needs combined.  At the present rate of consumption, Mr. Dishong estimates that Georgetown’s current water rights will be sufficient for the city until about 2041.  However, to achieve full economic development of the water service area, average consumption will have to drop to 160 gcd by about 2028.  If customers don’t choose to conserve, the only alternative is the purchase of new water rights, and those rights will not be cheap.  Ten years ago, the Brazos River Authority was selling water rights for about $20 an acre-foot.  Now the price is $62.50 per acre-foot.  Mr. Dishong notes, “Over the last eight or nine years the price has gone up every year but one.”  The Brazos River Authority forecasts rates of at least $225 per acre-foot by 2040.

Although Georgetown’s water supply looks fairly good at present, the situation outside of town is a bit more precarious.  Bill Brown is General Manager of Jonah Water Special Utility District, which serves an area of 400 square miles.  Seventy percent of Jonah water customers still depend on the utility’s eight active wells.  In spite of watering restrictions last summer some of the wells dropped as much as 130 feet.  In one well the water was just four feet above the pump.  When asked if the wells have improved with the recent rains, Mr. Brown stated, “There has been some recovery but they are still below normal.”  Mr. Brown says that Jonah Water SUD plans to decrease its reliance on wells by increasing the proportion of its water obtained from Lake Granger, but that requires $5 million of new infrastructure that won’t be ready by summer 2012.

Florence relies on four aging wells for 100 percent of its water.  Last summer one of those wells went dry and another broke down because of aging equipment.  A total ban on outdoor watering was imposed until the broken well came back on line.  Asked what would happen if the drought resumes this summer, Mayor Mary Condon replied, ”I am afraid we will all be in a lot of trouble.”

Next week we will look at groundwater usage in Williamson County.

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