Category Archives: Water Issues

San Antonio Water System Makes Right Choice –Focuses on Brackish Desalination Rather than Groundwater Import

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Devils River State Natural Area.

San Antonio – like many Texas cities these days – is thirsty for more water. For the past three years, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has been seeking proposals to import 50,000 acre-feet of precious groundwater to San Antonio as part of a plan to meet the estimated future water demands of the city. Both the Lone Star Chapter and the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club have expressed concerns to the SAWS Board and staff that these groundwater-importation proposals could impact endangered species, provide a disincentive to water conservation, and unnecessarily raise water rights.

If SAWS selected the groundwater import project from Val Verde County, there would likely be significant reductions in spring flows around the Devils River. Such reductions could have impacts on endangered species that rely on these spring flows, and could impact provisions of the international treaty downstream along the Rio Grande.

As part of the Val Verde or any other groundwater proposals, SAWS would pay for 50,000 acre-feet of water every year, whether or not they actually needed that amount of water in all years.  These ‘take-or-pay’ contracts, as they are called, serve as a disincentive to water conservation – an area where SAWS has become a national leader – because there is little reason to conserve water that you have already paid for.

Earlier this month, SAWS staff announced that they are recommending to their Board that all of the groundwater import proposals be rejected and instead, are recommending the expansion of the brackish desalination program set to begin in 2016. As initially conceived, this expansion would be in conjunction with a natural gas electrical generating facility that would be used primarily to power the desalination facility, but could also be used to meet peak electrical demands.

All things considered, this is a good move by the SAWS staff. Brackish water desalination facilities can be built in modules. Consequently, SAWS has the potential to expand its facility only as and if the need for water arises, and after the cheaper water conservation programs have been fully maximized. Certainly, there are concerns regarding the construction of a new natural gas facility. The Lone Star Chapter will continue to emphasize the potential for solar power or other renewable energy sources to power the desalination facility. Other concerns about desalination are discussed in the Lone Star Chapter’s publication: Desalination: Is it worth its Salt?

The position taken by SAWS staff is not the final word. The SAWS Board has yet to approve the staff’s recommendation, and there will likely be much discussion before a final decision is reached. Stay tuned.

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Invasive Species: Zebra Mussels Now In Texas

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Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the US. They first arrived in 1988 on European ships ballast. Lack of predators against the zebra mussels gave them the ability to infest eastern US waterways from the start. When they arrived here they increased competition for native aquatic species. They attach to our boats and are hard to see because they are only about an inch long. Zebra mussels spread faster than bunny rabbits- they multiply by producing about one million larvae per one single zebra mussel. Texas should be worried about their lakes because as you can see in the graph, they’ve now spread down here. According to texasinvasives.org, “Zebra mussels can cause tremendous environmental and economic damage – hurting aquatic life, damaging your boat, hindering water recreation and even threatening your water supply.” Find out about if zebra mussel are in our area here.

So what can you do? Firstly, you can spread awareness. Many people don’t know what invasive species are. Spreading awareness brings attention to people like Dan Molloy, a researcher who is trying to find a “natural killer” to eradicate the pests. You can find more information about his research here in this short article. You can also go on outings to help get rid of the zebra mussels.

Zebra mussels attach to many parts of your boat and clean thrive for days. To make sure they aren’t attached to your boat, clean all parts of, drain it completely, and dry the boat for at least a week before entering into a new body of water.

October storms kicking drought to the curb?

Aside from our lust garden boxes and rinsing off pollen from our cars the storms in mid-October added roughly 50,000 acre-feet to lakes Travis and Buchanan, pushing the lakes’ combined storage to more than 700,000 acre-feet for the first time since August 2011. 2011 was the driest year ever for Texas, with an average of only 14.8 inches of rain. The only comparable drought occurred during the 1950s, but no single year during that drought was as dry as 2011. It rained really hard here in Austin, but we can’t capture or store that water. We have no way to stop it from flowing downstream.stevie ray vahn at auditorium shores

The weekend storms are a good illustration of why the lower Colorado River basin needs not just rain, but rain in the right spot, to significantly increase the region’s water supply.

Parts of Austin were hit with as much as 12 inches of rain over the Oct. 12 weekend, turning Barton Creek into a raging river and flooding areas of South Austin. The heaviest rain fell in Austin near Barton Creek, which empties into Lady Bird Lake downstream of Lake Travis. That water cannot be captured downstream of Mansfield Dam in the Highland Lakes reservoirs and is flowing down the Colorado River toward Matagorda Bay, this influx of fresh water will help the health of Matagorda Bay.

It’s critical for rain to fall upstream of Austin in the lakes’ watershed. This is an 11,700 square-mile area upstream of Austin and stretching to the north and west out past Fredericksburg, Junction, Brady and San Saba. Lakes upstream of Austin, Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan, only gained about 20,000 acre-feet of water from the storm, most of that was in to Lake Travis.  The measurement there was acre-feet, by definition one acre-foot is 43,560 U.S. survey cubic feet. To us that’s less than 2 percent of the water needed to refill the lakes. But the lakes’ combined storage is 35 percent of capacity, still there is no end to the drought in sight.

 LCRA’s idea is to build a reservoir in Wharton County near the Gulf Coast with the intention to take advantage of rain events like these in the future, so that the flows that enter the Colorado River downstream of Lake Travis can be held for later use. The new reservoir is expected to be complete by 2017.

Nobody is singing rain rain go away come back another day. We have all experienced the drought as it’s has helped drain reservoirs , fuel wildfires, ruin crops and put a real strain on the state’s electric grid. bastrop fire

In February 2013, the state climatologist told the Texas Legislature that high temperatures related to climate change have exacerbated the drought. He said that the state temperature has increased by an average of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s.

This is what we looked like as of April 2011

This U.S. Drought Monitor map is released each week.

Meanwhile, I’m going to  learn a step or two from the indigenous as they managed to make it through the sizzling summers without our technology, but as always we’ll take any and all rain.

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Future of Water in Texas

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Unless you have been living under a rock for the last several years, you probably have heard that Texas has been facing a severe water crisis. You don’t need to be an expert hydrologist to understand this; after all this is Texas, where sizzling temperatures and dry conditions have always been a part of living in the desert southwest.

Most of you will remember that 2011 was the driest year in Texas history; the state reportedly only averaged 14.88 inches of rainfall that year. However, this is not the first time the state has faced water crises of that magnitude. In 1917, Texas averaged only .11 inches higher than in 2011, making average rainfall for that year only 14.99 inches. These numbers indicate a continuous struggle that Texas has had with water preservation for several decades, so it’s time for Texans to take action on a better water plan for the state.

Earlier this year, the Texas State Legislature passed a resolution that will allow the state to use its Rainy Day Fund to finance $2 billion dollars’ worth of water projects across Texas (referred to as the State Water Implementations Fund or “SWIFT”). That measure will be put up to Texas voters as constitutional amendment (Proposition 6) for the November 5th election. This ballot measure will be Texas’ first attempt to finance a statewide, long-term plan for water supply and water conservation.

So if voters were to approve this effort, what would that mean for Texans? Here is some language, as taken from the Prop 6 official website:

“The constitutional amendment providing for the creations of the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas to assist in the financing of priority projects in the state water plan to ensure the availability of adequate water resources.”

Enabling legislation that becomes law if Prop 6 passes provides that:

  • Not less than 20% of the funds shall go to water conservation or reuse projects;
  • Not less than 10% of the funds shall go to water projects in rural areas, which may include agricultural water conservation projects;
  • Only projects called for in the regional and state water plans will be eligible for this funding, and those projects must be prioritized at the regional and state levels based on factors such as cost-effectiveness and the effect of the project on water conservation and prevention of water losses.

So on November 5, voters have the opportunity approve billions of dollars to craft a borrowing-and-lending system for water projects here in Texas. There does not appear to be a specific list of projects that will be given the green light assuming this plan passes, this amendment would simply allow voters to put state money into a fund for water supplies and water conservation.

How the money will be apportioned is still unknown,” said Ronald Kaiser to the Houston Chronicle, “people are putting all their faith in the water board.” Kaiser is Professor of Water Law and Policy at Texas A&M University.

The 2012 version of the State Water Plan highlights 562 water projects; which include reservoirs, water treatment, and watershed protection roughly costing $53 billion dollars, of which the state would be expected to provide loans for half of that amount (the loans would have to be paid back to the state by local and regional water suppliers). This high cost, which could be pared by more aggressive water conservation efforts, indicates that the state needs to be smart about allocating the necessary funds to complete proposed projects and needs to evaluate projects more closely.

Last week, Governor Perry took the stand in North Texas, urging voters to pass Prop 6. With the state population expected to double in the next five decades, Governor Perry has rounded up a bi-partisan group of supporters to rally for the passage of Proposition 6 in Texas.

Through this process we’re going to be able to turn two billion dollars in seed money that’s in the Rainy Day Fund into 30-billion dollars’ worth of water projects across our state,” he said.  “We can’t make it rain, but we can take measure to extend our existing water supply and work to develop new supplies.”

Rifling through the endorsements of proposition 6, one can find quite the laundry list of corporations, businesses, non-profits, and environmental advocates all throwing their name in the hat in support of this amendment.

Some of the organizations that have endorsed Prop 6 include: the League of Women Voters, The Nature Conservancy, Texas AFL-CIO, Ducks Unlimited, numerous businesses and trade associations, the Texas Farm Bureau, as well as the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. The diversity of support for this measure reflects the critical need to plan for our future water resources wisely in an increasingly drought-plagued state.

The Sierra Club supports passage of Prop 6 because of the commitment that state legislators have made to water conservation and to prioritization of water projects in the administration of the new state water funds,” said Ken Kramer, State Water Resources Chair of the Sierra Club, “It is important that the commitments to conservation are honored in the implementation of Prop 6, but voter approval of Prop 6 will be an important first step toward meeting the state’s water needs, and we urge Texas voters to cast their ballots for Prop 6.”

The answer is clear: Texas definitely needs to act on its water crisis problem. We all can agree that with a growing population and increasingly drier weather conditions, water needs to be at the forefront of our priorities here in the state.

Click HERE to view the official press release from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Early voting: October 21 – November 1

Election Day: November 5.  

Why Should I Care About The Cost Of Tap Water?

Lone Star Chapter Water Resources Coordinator Jennifer Walker was a guest blogger on the American Rivers Blog today.  Her post follows.

Do big finance and economics play a role in the cost of the water coming out of your tap and should you even care? The answer is yes!

Financial realities are just as important for your water provider as they are for every family in Texas. When financial planning goes awry you may not like the results.

American Rivers just released a new report that provides basic information on how water utilities finance and pay for the water, pipes, plants and electricity that are needed to deliver water to you, the customer. This guide enables water customers to understand the financial underpinnings of their water systems. Just as with our personal finance, there are long-term consequences for decisions made yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Water utilities use a variety of methods to generate revenue to provide water to their customers, this is generally money that we pay for up front or have to pay back in the long-term through debt repayment. There are many assumptions that a utility uses to determine how much water is needed to serve their customers, what kind of infrastructure and programs are necessary to get water to customers and how much revenue can be expected in the future to repay loans and to finance services. This report goes through these considerations and gives consumers the tools they need to ask relevant questions and advocate for the proper management of their water utility.

Understand The True Cost To Avoid Overbuilding – And Overpaying

Consider this example: A utility issues bonds to build a water treatment plant based on an expected growth pattern or per-person water use that never materializes. The bonds still have to be repaid and the financial burden is ultimately spread out among fewer customers who each have to pay more for the water treatment plant than was anticipated. If per person water use is lower than expected, revenues take a hit and the utility could be forced to raise the per unit costs for water to cover debt repayment. Customers lose and costs go up.

Informed customers and community advocates need to be aware of the possible implications of big infrastructure expenditures and ask the right questions to ensure that utilities and decision makers make the best decisions. Potentially unnecessary project like these can be averted with informed advocacy. The example could pertain to a new water supply, a wastewater treatment plant or any other big expenditure made by a utility.

Saving Water Saves Us All Money

The most cost-effective method to provide water to consumers is to use the water and infrastructure that is already available to a community. The concept is that through various strategies consumers reduce their per capita water use thereby making water available to be used for other purposes. These include serving a growing population, dedicating water to keep our rivers healthy or any other use that may be deemed necessary by a community.

The cost of providing water to consumers across the United States is increasing. Using less water saves customers money through reducing the amount of water they are billed for, but that is just one of the benefits of reducing individual water use. When we all save water the community wins through lower overall costs and the environment wins because less water is taken out of our rivers and aquifer to meet human needs. We have a finite supply of water and need to use it wisely so we can meet all our water needs.

The San Antonio Case Study: Many cities have been quite successful in reducing per-person water use. San Antonio, TX has had tremendous population growth over that past 30 years, but they are still using the same amount of water to serve their customers as they did 30 years ago. By investing heavily in efficiency programs to extend their water supply San Antonio has been able to defer purchases of more expensive water supplies and has even shut down a wastewater treatment plant that was no longer needed due to reduced water use.

Consumers Have A Powerful Voice!

Water rate and pricing structures are critically important to consumers and addressed in the report as well. It is imperative to preserve affordability while ensuring that water is priced effectively to cover utility costs and to send a price signal to high water users to reduce their water use.

Water supply, availability and affordability are some of the most important issues facing communities these days. It is incumbent upon consumers to understand the implications of choices made by in our local decision makers that can have lasting effects on our communities, environment, and pocket books. We must all be able to ask the right questions to promote both environmentally and fiscally sustainable water supply decisions.

– See more at: http://www.americanrivers.org/newsroom/blog/jodefey-20130709-why-care-about-cost-tap-water.html#sthash.mxjfHfCu.dpuf

Texas Water Fluoridation Controversy

When you turn on the water faucet in your kitchen to fill up a water bottle, you don’t usually think about the origin of the water you’re about to drink, how it was treated, and what may have been added to it. The only thing you’re really thinking about is how thirsty you are. We all need water, so we’re all used to just drinking whatever water we can get, as long as it looks clean and comes from a home, business, or water bottle. So it’s not surprising that most people have no idea that fluoride is put into their drinking water every day for dental hygienic reasons, not water treatment.

Woman Drinking Glass of Water

                Water fluoridation started in the 1940’s, when tooth decay was a problem and scientists had been researching the differences in natural fluoride concentrations in water sources. What they found was that areas with moderate amounts of fluoride in the water had fewer cases of tooth decay than those with water sources with lower amounts of fluoride. While they also found that excessive amounts of fluoride could cause things like dental fluorosis, communities started adding moderate amounts of fluoride into their drinking water to keep teeth healthy, at the recommendation of several dental associations as well as the FDA.

Today, water fluoridation has stirred some controversy. The side that promotes water fluoridation states that the benefits of fluoridated water completely outweigh the negatives. Fluoridation costs about fifty cents a year per person, which is cheaper than dental visits, and it has been proven to prevent tooth decay, reducing a person’s risk by about 25%. People who oppose community water fluoridation state that the government should not be in control of medicating communities through public resources because it does not allow people to make the choice of whether or not they want to be medicated, especially since the amount of fluoride one should have for dental use differs per person depending on age, etc. They also state that with increased public knowledge of dental hygiene, there is no longer any reason for the public to be given extra amounts of fluoride. Lastly, they state that many countries in Europe and the US have similar amounts of tooth decay, but most countries in Europe do not use fluoridated water, so the true effectiveness may vary.

Here in Texas, around 80% of the population that uses public water drinks water that is fluoridated. Some communities, including places like College Station, Lago Vista, and Alamo Heights, have voted against water fluoridation, and many more have groups that are trying to end fluoridation. Whichever side you stand on for community water fluoridation, water is our most important resource, so continue to be educated about what is in your water and how it affects you.

San Antonio Sets Example for Water Conservation in Texas

Nearly all of the water in San Antonio’s famed River Walk is recycled water. (Image credit: http://www.visitsanantonio.com)

As the world collectively peers into its magic crystal ball (which totally exists), most observers see a future ridden with serious environmental issues that will be difficult to manage – especially if meaningful action isn’t taken immediately. While many of these threats (like those of climate change) are global in nature, the degree to which different parts of the world are affected will vary. Texas’ future, for example, promises to be very difficult due to an increase in drought conditions coupled with a rapidly growing population – factors that will inevitably lead to a decrease in freshwater resources. Indeed, we are already experiencing difficulty in providing ample water resources to satisfy the state’s residential, commercial, and ecological needs – a fact that emphasizes the importance of water conservation, moving forward. Fortunately, San Antonio (the state’s second largest city) has taken on a leadership role in the state by successfully implementing aggressive water conservation measures through its public water utility, San Antonio Water System (SAWS).

Through a variety of incentives, educational initiatives, restrictions, and water recycling measures, the city manages to use roughly the same amount of water that it used in 1984, despite a 67% increase in population.

Much of this success can be attributed to its incentives for large-scale commercial water users, who represent 50% of the city’s water consumption despite being only 10% of the customer base. These incentives, which foot significant portions of the bill for water-saving retrofits, have been popular for businesses in San Antonio since they provide for high post-installation savings that typically allow businesses to get a quick return on their investment. For example, Frito-Lay’s plant in San Antonio undertook a $1.4 million dollar retrofit in 2003, for which it received a nearly $265,000 rebate; the retrofits also save the company roughly $138,000 per year, which means it likely recouped its investment in 2011. Most importantly, the plant’s retrofits have saved 43 million gallons of water per year and have even helped the company increase potato chip production. Other successful commercial water conservation programs include a rebate program for restaurants that has gotten 40% of San Antonio restaurants to lower their water usage, and a hotel rebate program which seeks to minimize the impact of the city’s bustling tourism industry on water resources.

SAWS has also implemented several impressive residential conservation programs like the Plumbers to People program, which provides free repairs to leaky plumbing for low-income San Antonians. Another effective initiative has been their High-Efficiency Toilet Program, which distributes new low-water toilets to customers with wasteful toilets. Both programs are very cost-effective and are praised for their ability to integrate low-income customers into SAWS’ conservation efforts. Most importantly, however, they save over 3 billion gallons of water per year.

Furthermore, much of the water that the city does use is eventually recycled. After being processed at a water treatment plant, it is commonly used for the irrigation of parks and golf courses, in cooling towers, and in industrial processes. Perhaps the most surprising use of recycled water, however, is for the replenishment of San Antonio’s famed River Walk.

Through these programs, San Antonio has made significant progress in reducing per capita water use from a high of 225 gallons per day in the mid-1980s to a low of 136 gallons per day, with a final goal of 116 gallons per day by 2016. Achieving further reductions in water use will become increasingly difficult, however, since opportunities to pick the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of conservation measures will become less abundant. Regardless, with more time to develop (and aided by progress in technology and policy, as well as phase-outs of water-guzzling coal plants), these programs will go a long way in securing water for San Antonio’s future.

Oh, and, it will surely help to have a mayor that describes water conservation as being “part and parcel of being a San Antonian.”

By Diego Atencio