The Last Drop

The good news is that Texas has an incredibly detailed plan for how to deal with the looming shortfalls in every one of its major urban areas. The bad news is that you can’t drink a plan.

February 2008By Comments

Photograph by Adam Voorhes

0915.2035

Everybody remembers September 15, 2035. Just as they can tell you where they were on September 11, 2001, they can recall what they were doing 34 years later on the day that Dallas and Fort Worth ran out of water. It came at the end of a brutal five-year drought. The population had been multiplying like bacteria, residents had done little to conserve their water, and municipal governments had not spent nearly enough money on building new pipelines and reservoirs. Finally, on September 15, a Saturday, the big water suppliers announced that they were shutting down the pipelines. That was the day nothing came out of the faucet. That was the day everything still living withered and died.

Does this seem like a far-fetched scenario, the sort of nightmarish confluence of human error and act of God that could never really happen? Then consider the events of the summer of 2006 in the northern and eastern suburbs of Dallas, a part of the area known to state water planners as Region C. An eighteen-month drought had left Plano, Richardson, Mesquite, and other suburbs in a precarious position, and there was still no rain forecast, no end in sight. As the cities smoldered, the huge reservoirs that served them dropped to ever more alarming levels. Jim Chapman Lake emptied to 15 percent of its capacity, Lavon Lake to 36 percent. People began to realize that there were no backups, no lines to other reservoirs. Water hogs were slapped with fines—more than six thousand levied in Plano alone. Locks were unceremoniously clamped onto delinquent sprinkler systems. Nervous citizens were told they might soon face a stage four emergency, a condition that would mean the end of nearly all lawn watering (and thus, soon enough, of nearly all lawns) and eventually strict rationing.

Luckily, that did not happen. Small rains came in late 2006, followed by very big rains in the spring and summer of 2007. Reservoirs refilled, the crisis was averted, life returned to normal. But for anyone paying attention, the episode was terrifying: 1.6 million people had come within a meteorological whisker of a catastrophic water shortage. And the drought of 2005—2006 was not even a particularly bad one. It was nowhere near as severe as the seven-year drought of the fifties, during which Dallas had to build an emergency pipeline to the Red River. That fix worked, but only because the population of Dallas proper was just 600,000 or so. Today it’s 1.2 million.

The simple fact is that Region C—which includes Tarrant, Dallas, Collin, Denton, Rockwall, and eleven other counties—is getting too big for its water supplies: Ever-increasing numbers of people and businesses are straining resources built to accommodate a much smaller crowd. Unlike the Panhandle and the Llano Estacado, which sit on top of North America’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala, Region C relies almost entirely on surface water; unlike rainy East Texas, its reserves of that commodity are quite limited. This makes Region C uniquely vulnerable to drought. The water contained in the twelve reservoirs that serve Dallas and Fort Worth is completely inadequate to meet future need. The state’s official projections for the water shortfall over the next fifty years are nothing less than astonishing.

These projections begin with explosive growth. Between 2010 and 2060, Region C’s population is expected to roughly double, from 6.6 million to 13.1 million. That will account for 28.5 percent of the state population. Water use will increase 87 percent, from 1.8 million acre-feet per year in 2010 to 3.3 million acre-feet in 2060. Meanwhile, as demand increases dramatically, existing sources of supply—rivers and lakes and groundwater in the area—will actually decline by 9 percent, mostly due to the silting in of reservoirs and the depletion of aquifers, leaving a shortfall of 1.93 million acre-feet per year. That is more than the entire current water usage in the area. (One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, which, broadly speaking, is enough to meet the water needs of two suburban families for one year.)

The water problems that Texas as a whole faces are comparable. Water planners predict that, like Region C, Texas is expected to roughly double its population by 2060, to 46 million. Surface water will be the source of most of the water for our giant urban centers, yet existing groundwater and surface water supplies will drop, by about 18 percent, leaving a mind-boggling statewide shortfall of some 8.8 million acre-feet per year—the equivalent output of 85 large reservoirs.

Every major city in Texas has its own unique water problem: San Antonio relies almost entirely on groundwater and will need to find new supplies in aquifers other than the Edwards, the pumping of which is now limited by law; El Paso, long reliant on water from the Rio Grande and Pecos rivers and groundwater from two primary aquifers, will have to desalinate brackish groundwater and reuse reclaimed water to survive; Houston relies on groundwater and surface water but must wean itself off groundwater, because the more it pumps the more the city sinks into the earth.

Of all these, though, the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth face the worst dilemma, a sort of perfect storm of failing supply and skyrocketing demand, made palpably real by the recent drought. This area is going to need a colossal amount of water in the future. By 2035 it will have exhausted all its existing supplies. Where will it get the water it needs? The answer is not clear-cut, but the problem may be starting to make itself understood. “The perception here changed after 2005—2006,” says Jim Parks, the executive director of the North Texas Municipal Water District, which came under fire after the crisis for failing to provide sufficient reserves. “People started realizing that it is not a God-given right that water is going to be in those reservoirs.”

Among the fifty states, Texas may rank near the bottom in many categories—including environmental protection (forty-fifth), quality of parks and recreation (forty-ninth), and availability of mental health care (forty-sixth)—but there is one area of public policy where it ranks indisputably first: water planning. No other state knows with such precision how much water it has and how much it will have in the future. Every five years the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), the state’s lead water planning and financing agency, produces a prodigious work of hydrologic scholarship known as the State Water Plan. Divvying up the state into sixteen regions, the plan pre-sents precisely articulated data on current and future supply and demand in each region and strategies for dealing with shortfalls. The 2007 version outlines more than 4,500 strategies to fix the fifty-year shortfall. All told, the price tag comes to $30.7 billion (Region C’s share is $13.2 billion). By contrast, the state of Georgia, whose principal city, Atlanta, came famously close to running out of water last year, has historically dedicated few resources to determining how much water it has, how much it will need, how well it can weather a drought, and what it will cost to fix its shortfalls.

Why is Texas so good at this? In part because its main population centers are located on the edge of what people used to call the Great American Desert. This historically treeless zone begins roughly at the 98th meridian, a line of longitude that bisects the state along the Interstate 35 corridor. With one foot in the semiarid or arid prairies and plains of the American West and the other in the rainy forests of the East, Texas has been hit hard, and often, by catastrophic droughts. The drought of the 1890’s killed off much of its nascent cattle industry. In the fifties a seven-year drought (Texas’s worst statewide drought ever) destroyed much of the state’s agriculture and caused 244 of the state’s 254 counties to be declared federal disaster areas. This led the state legislature to create the Texas Water Development Board, which published its first water plan in 1961.

The board continued to meet, and its strategies grew more sophisticated, but by the late eighties it had become clear that its plans were not being acted on sufficiently. The planners in Austin were planning, but people in the rest of the state weren’t paying much attention. The short but viciously harsh drought of 1996 changed all that, leading directly to the unprecedented 1997 law requiring the regions of the state to come up with their own fifty-year plans. It also said that in order to be approved, any water rights or projects had to be included in the state water plan. It wasn’t until a decade later, however, that the water board got some real teeth. Legislation spearheaded by Republican senator Kip Averitt, of Waco, in 2007 gave the state the power to actually finance water projects, including more than three quarters of a billion dollars’ worth now in development. The water board now had some control over what got built and what didn’t. The bill also gave priorities in financing to cities with conservation plans and set in motion a process to establish a minimum “environmental flow” (or, an acceptable water level) for every stream and river in the state. These may sound like modest advances. In the world of water management, they were landmarks.

What all of this means is that there is, in fact, a plan for how to slake Region C’s thirst. It consists of four main strategies, staged to kick in at intervals over the next forty years: (1) Build four big reservoirs; (2) build pipelines to six lakes that are not currently hooked up to Metroplex water systems; (3) reuse wastewater, both in irrigation and cooling systems and by recycling it through rivers and wetlands; and (4) use less water (in the plan, conservation accounts for 11 percent of the future water supply).

On paper this plan looks sensible. Most of the water in the state is in East Texas—which gets 50 to 60 inches of rain per year, compared with the Metroplex’s 36 inches—so it makes sense for the big suppliers to look there for new water. It makes sense to build new reservoirs to hold that new water and to build new lines to pipe it to Region C. It makes sense to reuse water and to promote conservation. But in spite of how reasonable the TWDB’s plan might seem, it is going to be brutally difficult to carry out. Even to call it a plan may be inaccurate, since planning carries a certain expectation of accomplishment. Perhaps “vision” would be a better word. The TWDB’s problem, and ours, is that its vision is not shared by everyone. There are, in fact, significant disagreements over how the agency assesses our future water needs and how it proposes to satisfy them.

One of the best ways to understand the hurdles Region C’s water plan will have to overcome is to head for the bottomlands of the Sulphur River, about fifty miles outside Texarkana, in northeast Texas. Few of this area’s tiny communities can be found on a map. It is a place of small farms and ranches, dirt roads and oak forests, pastures and lovely rolling post oak savanna. It is also a land of creeks and sloughs and floodplains and the lush hardwood river bottom, and this has made it a big part of the proposed solution to the looming urban water shortages in the Metroplex. Region C’s basic strategy for the next half a century is quite simple: Lay pipelines eastward, to the rain-rich and relatively unpopulated regions of East Texas, where large dams and reservoirs will be built. The largest of these, by far, is the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir. At 72,000 acres (113 square miles), it would radically transform the Sulphur River area. Water planners insist that without it, Region C’s future will be in grave danger.

That’s not how Max Shumake sees it. Last November, I toured the river bottom with him from his hunting camp, a pretty place with an ancient single-wide, a couple of ATVs, and some chairs and tables with rifles spread across them. A dead bobcat hung splayed upside down from an old oak tree. Shumake and his family own 797 acres here. His view of what will happen to this land if Marvin Nichols gets built is stark. “Nothing that you see here will remain,” he said ruefully. “Cemeteries, churches, farms, ranches, and families that have been here for five generations. A healthy timber industry. Where you are standing now will be nine feet underwater.”

Shumake is the president of the Sulphur River Oversight Society (SOS), a local landowner group formed to oppose Marvin Nichols. It now claims six thousand members, the support of every state legislator in the area, and the backing of such environmental powerhouses as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation. SOS and other reservoir opponents say that between the 72,000-acre lake and an additional 163,000 acres of federally mandated environmental “mitigation,” the Marvin Nichols project will not only destroy ranches and farms of multigenerational residents but also obliterate wildlife habitat, submerge 30,000 acres of rare hardwood bottomlands, and disrupt more than forty miles of a river that has already been dammed twice. The local timber industry would lose up to 1,300 jobs and $275 million in annual revenue, according to the Texas Forest Service.

“We just don’t think it is fair,” said Shumake, “to ask us to give up everything so that North Texas can put up to sixty percent of its water into watering lawns.”

His argument has two parts: (1) Dallas and Fort Worth consume water at a rate well above other big Texas cities and want to build new reservoirs only to avoid having to adopt more-difficult measures, such as limiting lawn watering (which on summer days does indeed account for 60 percent of all municipal use), and (2) there are other untapped sources of surface water, such as Toledo Bend Reservoir, on the Sabine River; Lake Texoma, on the Oklahoma border; and Wright Patman Lake, farther downstream on the Sulphur River, that should be used first. Shumake may be a country boy, but last spring his group and its allies showed their political muscle, causing a major fight in the state legislature over the preliminary designation of the four reservoir sites. They lost that fight but sent a clear message: Dallas and Fort Worth are in for a long, bloody struggle over the building of Marvin Nichols.

It will be even harder to build Fastrill Reservoir, another of the state’s proposed water sources, located about 130 miles due south of Shumake’s camp, on the upper Neches River. City of Dallas water planners have coveted the upper Neches for damming and impoundment. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) beat them to the punch by declaring it part of a national wildlife refuge in 2006. Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Water Development Board were furious, warning that the future of Dallas’s water supplies was at risk and that the feds were intruding into state water policy. In response, both the City of Dallas and the TWDB filed suits against the FWS, while some 20,000 Texans wrote letters in support of the refuge. Whatever the outcome of the suit (and right now it doesn’t look good for the plaintiffs), environmentalists have vowed to fight to protect the roughly 25,000 acres of forested wetlands.

It was not always this difficult to build dams and reservoirs. In the early and mid-twentieth century, reservoirs reigned supreme in the world of water management. In Texas, the heyday of the “big dam era” lasted from the thirties to the eighties. After that, the popularity of reservoirs began to wane, mostly for environmental reasons: They displace populations, destroy habitat and rivers, and negatively affect the condition and salinity of coastal estuaries. Plus they’re hard to build. Even if you can jump the political, environmental, and bureaucratic hurdles necessary to get one approved, it is likely to take fifteen to twenty years to actually finish one—nearly the same time horizon as for a new nuclear power plant. Of Texas’s 196 major reservoirs, 169 were built before 1980.

The responsibility for building Region C’s new reservoirs lies with the three giant utilities that control 75 percent of the area’s water: the Tarrant Regional Water District, the North Texas Municipal Water District, and Dallas Water Utilities. Tarrant and North Texas are wholesalers, selling water to cities; Dallas Water performs both wholesale and retail functions. Because there is little groundwater in the area, these governmental organizations with elected boards have by nature and tradition always been reservoir builders, securing their water by damming rivers in the Trinity River Basin. Dallas Water has five reservoirs, Tarrant Regional has four, and North Texas Municipal has three.

To a large extent, the future prosperity of Region C is in the hands of these agencies, and if you listen to the people who run them (and to the governor and a large number of elected state officials), new reservoirs are crucial to supplying the population’s future water needs. Water planners have proposed nineteen across the state. But the experiences with Nichols and Fastrill suggest that many—even most—may never see the light of day.

Reservoirs are just a part of the problem Dallas and Fort Worth will face in their attempt to pipe water from rural East Texas. Shumake is right—one of the most logical sources of supply in the area is the giant Toledo Bend Reservoir, in far East Texas, a little-used reservoir that was completed in 1969 by damming the Sabine River. It is the largest man-made body of water in the South and the fifth largest, by surface acres, in the United States. The river above it drains an area of 7,190 square miles. It is also, most importantly, the largest pool of water in the state that remains untapped by any large user, capable of producing an enormous two million acre-feet of water per year (Louisiana has rights to half of that). For this reason, Toledo Bend figures heavily in the water plan as a major source for all three of the big wholesalers.

But actually getting hold of its water will not be easy. First, there’s the fact that the only way to transport water from Toledo Bend to the Metroplex is via a two-hundred-plus-mile, mostly uphill pipeline. Estimated cost: $1.1 billion. Estimated time to secure all the environmental permits and interbasin transfer rights: maybe twenty years. Aside from that, there are the possible environmental protections. Though nothing quite so violent as a new reservoir is being constructed, taking large amounts of water away from a river’s ecology has profound effects over the long term. The Sabine River Basin is a complex ecosystem that includes habitat for all sorts of animals. Precious cypress-tupelo swamps flourish near the river’s mouth. A large drop in river flow means higher salinity in the Gulf, coastal wetlands, and other sensitive areas. All this will provide the opposition with considerable ammunition, especially considering the 2007 water bill’s directive to the Legislature to establish minimum environmental flows.

“Everything becomes a trade-off,” says Kelly Brumbelow, a professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University and a leading authority on water management. “You can move that water around, but only if you are willing to accept significant ecological impacts. Only if you are willing to take all of these estuaries and riverine ecosystems in East Texas and sacrifice them.” For decades, a willingness to make those trade-offs has paved the way for new dams and reservoirs. But Brumbelow says this is changing. “The students I see around here,” he explains, “the ones who are going to be making the decisions twenty or twenty-five years from now, they’re much more comfortable with the idea of environmental protection.”

The most obvious solution to the water problem is to use less water. This notion is both crushingly obvious and completely ignored by the average Texas water hog, who blithely takes thirty-minute showers, fills and refills his backyard pool, and runs the sprinkler for two hours a day, four days a week. Except in times of extreme drought, conservation, especially in big cities, is just not high on anyone’s agenda. This may be partly because, in Region C at least, municipal governments and utilities have never tried to make the case that it should be.

As a commodity, water is valueless. The utilities are granted free permits for it by the state. They do not pay for the water. What we pay them is based only on what it costs them to store it, haul it from the reservoir, and pay the salaries of their employees. Though a number of private landowners are starting to actually sell their groundwater to cities like San Antonio and El Paso, the overwhelming majority of the state’s water has no commodity value, as does, say, a barrel of oil. Because of this, business and industry have never been compelled to view it as anything particularly precious. Water in Texas is an economic paradox: It is rare, yes, but it is also dirt cheap, something nobody has ever cared much about saving.

The key measure of water consumption is gallons per capita per day. According to the TWDB’s most recent data, Richardson is the biggest user among Texas cities, at 275 gallons. Dallas isn’t far behind at 238. Plano is at 225. By contrast, Austin uses only 177 gallons per person per day, and San Antonio 142. Though the numbers are almost certainly skewed against the Metroplex because of the presence of so much industry, the area has done so little to promote conservation that it remains vulnerable to criticisms such as Shumake’s that it is draining the rivers, lakes, and wetlands of East Texas merely to water its lawns.

What complicates water conservation is that the big water wholesalers, like Tarrant Regional and North Texas Municipal, are not in a position to enforce it. (Dallas Water, within the city limits, is an exception.) Only the buyers of their water, the municipalities, can set watering rules or other consumption limits. The result is a hodgepodge of unorganized, unorchestrated conservation practices that vary widely from city to city. The state, of course, could take control of the matter and mandate strict conservation, but don’t hold your breath. It is extremely difficult to try and set consumption limits in a state where rainfall ranges from 55 inches per year, in Beaumont, to 10 inches a year, in El Paso. People in Port Arthur do not usually need to water their lawns; in Midland, lawns and gardens wither quickly without frequent irrigation.

Perhaps more important, there are the obstacles of culture and tradition. Most Americans bristle at the suggestion that limits be placed on their personal freedoms. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have come to include luxuriant showers, daily dishwasher cycles, and backyard hot tubs and pools. What’s more, for many Texans, especially those in fast-growing suburbs, lawns and gardens are regarded as an inalienable right. The look and feel, not to mention the dollar value, of homes in booming, affluent communities like Southlake and Frisco is based on St. Augustine grass and decorative shrubs. This is real money, and people will not want to give it up, no matter how much they are harangued about the moral righteousness and environmental correctness of Xeriscaping with ornamental cacti.

That is not to say that anyone is giving up. Water awareness campaigns are in their infancy in most of the state. And San Antonio—now the water planner’s poster child for smart conservation—has had enormous success in curtailing consumption. The city offers all sorts of carrot-and-stick incentives to save water: up to $525 in rebates for replanting your yard with low-water plants, a $100 washing machine rebate to replace your old water hog, free water-efficient toilets. New laws were also passed in 2005 and 2007 that require drought-tolerant grass for all new homes and businesses and rain sensors for lawn irrigation systems; prohibit charity car washes, except in existing commercial facilities; and require annual checkups for any watering system covering more than five acres. The city is now aggressively seeking out and working with golf courses and other mega-consumers to develop plans to save water. The result is a per capita consumption rate so admirably low that San Antonio has become the benchmark for conservation around the state.

But while individual consumers and businesses get most of the blame for poor conservation, one of the worst water wasters of all is neither a person nor a company. It is the system itself. Leaks. Much of the infrastructure that carries our water was built during the big-dam era and is now forty to fifty years old and badly deteriorated. In Fort Worth, a 2005 water audit showed that 7.2 billion gallons of water were lost to leakage—a thumping 16.7 percent of all the water used in the city that year.

“This is one of the dirty little secrets of urban water utilities,” says Brumbelow, the A&M professor. “There are lots of older utilities out there that are not doing a good job of keeping up their infrastructure. We’ve seen losses as high as forty percent.” (An extreme example of this elsewhere in the state is the Rio Grande Valley, where old, unlined dirt canals are used to get the water out to the fields, allowing literally millions of gallons to seep away into the ground.) The problem is bad enough that the TWDB now requires all retail public water suppliers to do water audits every five years. But knowing you have a leak and fixing it are not the same thing. As with so many other examples of sagging American infrastructure, no one wants to spend the billions of dollars it will cost to replace all the pipes, valves, pumps, and other hardware.

The final form of conservation in the state water plan goes by the innocuous-sounding name of “reuse.” It’s a wonderful concept, in all its forms. It means, quite simply, that water we have already used we will use again. Let’s take the most ordinary example. You flush your toilet, sending three and a half gallons of water and waste down the drain. The sewage system ferries your deposit to a wastewater treatment plant, where it is run through a series of filters. Sixty percent of the water in that plant ends up back in your local river. (It may dismay you to learn that in many rivers, particularly the ones downstream of a major city, much of the water you see is treated effluent. It’s fairly clean, though, often cleaner than the “wild” river water it is dumped back into.)

Once the effluent has been returned to the local rivers, it can be used to water golf courses, fill cooling towers at power plants, or in other applications that do not involve consumption. Theoretically, it can also be put directly into a reservoir to be consumed, presumably by you. Because of the gross-out factor inherent in such a process, this does not currently happen (nor is it envisioned in the 2007 water plan). However, in the most sophisticated and ingenious use, the river-borne effluent is pumped into a reservoir to be consumed, but not before being filtered by an artificially constructed wetland.

That may sound a bit rarefied, the sort of experimental technology found only at research facilities, but exactly this kind of reuse accounts for an enormous amount of the water intended to save the Metroplex. It will come in the form of two projects. This year North Texas Municipal will complete a $250 million, 1,840-acre wetland on the east fork of the Trinity River, just east of the city of Dallas. The low-quality, sediment-filled water, mostly effluent and urban runoff, will be pumped into one side of the wetland; seven days later it will emerge on the other side, cleaner than the water in most reservoirs. This project is critical to the water supply of those same suburbs that were stricken by the 2005¬2006 drought and will help to ensure that a similar near-catastrophe does not take place again. The East Fork Raw Water Supply Project will generate 102,000 acre-feet of water per year, approximately the equivalent of one major reservoir.

A win-win situation, right? Not exactly. Even with such benign, natural technologies there is controversy. Farther down on the Trinity, the Tarrant Regional Water District has built an even bigger wetland, one that will produce 188,000 acre-feet per year. But in order to get rights to that water, the utility had to endure eight years of tough negotiations with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the cities of Houston and Dallas, and various Galveston Bay organizations. Why? Because by reusing Region C’s effluent, Tarrant Regional would effectively be siphoning off water that would normally flow downstream in the Trinity to Houston and the Gulf. Houston depends on the Trinity for almost all of its surface water. (Which, by the way, means that on any given summer day some 95 percent of the water filling Houston’s two main reservoirs is effluent from Dallas and Fort Worth. Yes, that’s what I said: The toilets of Dallas supply the faucets and drinking fountains of Houston.)

“Reuse can add tremendously to the water supplies of Fort Worth and Dallas,” says Ronald Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy and the chair of the Texas A&M Graduate Water Degree Program. “But there are real limits to what they can do. If they reused all of their water, for example, several things would happen. The ecology of the Trinity would change dramatically. The river would run dry. But the big impact would be that Houston would come unglued because they have come to rely on those base flows.” Reuse—that great idea—will likely occasion major battles between Dallas and Houston in the coming years as these two thirsty populations compete for the dregs of the Trinity basin.

So if Region C doesn’t get its water from pipelines to East Texas, strict conservation, or reuse, where will it get its water? T. Boone Pickens thinks the answer to this question could be worth a lot of money. Never one to let an opportunity pass by, Pickens has come up with a scheme to pump water from the Ogallala Aquifer and sell it to the big suppliers in Region C. The Ogallala is pumped on a massive scale, irrigating corn, cotton, wheat, and sorghum crops in the areas around Lubbock and Amarillo and accounting for about 40 percent of all the water used in the state of Texas. Of course, it is being slowly depleted and sometime in the next century will run completely dry. But in the meantime, Pickens has been buying up groundwater rights in the area. His idea is to get one or more of the Metroplex’s three big suppliers to finance the building of a pipeline for about $2 billion; once the pipes are up and running, he’ll sell Region C the water in them.

This may sound like a perfect, if somewhat ecologically irresponsible, match of supply and demand, but in fact Pickens’s water is extremely expensive compared with the alternatives. According to a recent engineering study, his water would cost some $2.60 per thousand gallons, more than three times what it would cost to get water from the new reservoir on lower Bois d’Arc Creek (one of the four East Texas reservoirs proposed for Region C). Pickens’ scheme also costs more than piping water in from Toledo Bend. According to the main suppliers, there are only two sources of water more expensive than Pickens’s—a large aquifer that stretches south and east of Dallas, called the Carrizo-Wilcox, and the Gulf of Mexico (though, due to its prohibitive cost, desalinated Gulf water is not yet in the picture).

But Pickens persists. His project relies on the near absence of state regulation of groundwater. This circumstance may be short-lived—most water experts expect more-stringent state groundwater regulation in the next 25 years—but for now groundwater from either Pickens or the Carrizo-Wilcox remains on the table for all three water suppliers.

“Boone’s thing is certainly feasible,” says Jim Oliver, the general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District. “Water from the Carrizo-Wilcox is also feasible. But their markup is incredible, and they want a whole lot more money than what we can build other reservoirs for. Boone is revising his model. But he is just going to have to get real.”

In the midst of all this uncertainty about the future of the region’s water supply lies a single, tantalizing possibility. A solution so complete, a water supply so prodigious that it could take Region C through the next two centuries and actually remove the need for East Texas reservoirs like Marvin Nichols and Fastrill. From an engineering and cost perspective, it is astoundingly simple and cheap. The project was not included in the plan because of its extraordinary political sensitivity, which you will understand immediately when you learn the source of this gigantic volume of water: Oklahoma.

This is not a new idea. Oklahoma, particularly its eastern half, is swimming in rainwater, more water than its population of 3.6 million people (a little more than half that of the Metroplex) could ever imagine needing or using. In the eighties, the City of Dallas was behind a bill in the Oklahoma legislature that would have allowed Texas access to water from Oklahoma reservoirs. It failed, as did a similar attempt in 2000 by an alliance of suppliers and cities led by North Texas Municipal. Both efforts were met with heavy political opposition: “The Texans are coming to steal our water” and so forth. Oklahomans were so upset that they slapped a moratorium on all out-of-state water transfers.

Then the folks at Tarrant Regional came up with a solution. What if, instead of sticking Texas straws into Oklahoma reservoirs, they took the water after it left those reservoirs but before it hit the Red River (which is so salty it needs treatment)? Water, in other words, that Oklahoma does not use, water that normally flows into the Red River and then down through Louisiana, which has more water than it knows what to do with, and finally out into the Gulf of Mexico. There are 8 million acre-feet of such water, more than four times what Region C will need fifty years from now and nearly the total shortfall for the entire state of Texas in 2060. Tarrant Regional’s proposal is to take roughly 4 percent of this water from three pipeline access points: Cache Creek and Beaver Creek, in the western part of the state, and the Kiamichi River, in the east. They are willing to pay for it, and they agree that they would never have any rights to water in the reservoir itself. (The water would be shared by the three big suppliers.)

But a large number of Oklahomans still hate the idea of Texans sniffing around their water, fearing that this would be the first step in a larger assault on their drinking and sporting supplies. Tarrant Regional has sued Oklahoma in federal court, saying that the moratorium is unconstitutional. If it wins that case, it would then be allowed to apply for permits. If it gets such permits, it would probably not have to pay for the water, which is why the Oklahoma legislature is already playing a high-risk game. Like everything else in the water business, this will likely take years to negotiate and settle and then many more years before the pipelines are completed.

The Texas Water Development Board’s 2007 plan offers an implicit warning to the people of Region C: Implement the four proposed strategies (new reservoirs, new pipelines, reuse, and conservation) or your farms will die, your businesses will go bankrupt, and your cities will dry up. But as we’ve seen, executing even just one of these strategies can be demonically complex. Water politics are by nature deeply adversarial. There are literally thousands of competing interests. It is almost impossible to put forward a plan of any kind that does not cause harm to someone, somewhere. The issue is a sort of paradise for lawyers. Programs like “interbasin transfer” promise hellish, multiyear court battles. The environmentalists and “NIMBYists” who have tried to stop Fastrill and Marvin Nichols are merely previews of the future conflicts that will rage in Texas.

These conflicts will pit vote-rich cities against rural areas, farmers against suburbs and exurbs, Dallas against Houston, the Metroplex against landowners in the Panhandle, environmentalists against business and residential water users, Texas against Oklahoma and Louisiana, and Texas against federal and local governments. And when all the smoke has cleared, there is no guarantee that anyone will have been able to avert that hypothetical water catastrophe of September 15, 2035. It is entirely possible that the state that knows everything about its water problems may be powerless to solve them.

Related Content