Saturday, April 27, 2013

Texas' Water Woes

For the last few years, Texas has been held up by conservatives as the example for doing the right things to recover from the Great Recession: keep taxes low, eliminate regulations on businesses, make drastic government budget cuts.  They are fond of pointing out that Texas has led the 50 states in job creation over the last few years, with the corresponding population increases.  What they haven't identified is where the water to support all those jobs and people will come from.

The figure to the left summarizes the current status of the ongoing drought in Texas. 70% of the state is categorized as being in severe drought conditions, or worse.  These are not the worst conditions that have occurred in the last few years.  In October 2011, 70% of the state was in exceptional drought conditions, the most serious level in the measurement scheme.  There is a growing body of archeological evidence that, rather than being unusual, the current conditions are actually a return to normal after a century that has been wetter than the historical average.  The drought has appeared in a variety of news stories.

Wichita Falls, a city of about 100,000 people, is the largest on a list of more than 20 cities that could run out of water within the next 180 days.  The city government there describes the situation as "possible but unlikely".  Some other authorities seem less sure than that.

Farmers along the Colorado River (the Texas Colorado River, not the one that carved the Grand Canyon) downstream from Austin have had their irrigation water cut off by the Lower Colorado River Authority. The LCRA gives cities and power plants higher priority access to the reduced amounts of water available.  Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the major Colorado River reservoirs upstream from Austin, are at less than 40% of capacity entering what is typically the hottest, driest part of the year.

Two years ago, Texas filed suit in the US Supreme Court against the state of Oklahoma, demanding that Texas be allowed to purchase a portion of the water that would otherwise flow into the Red River and transport it to northern Texas (and to the rapidly-growing Fort Worth area specifically) by pipeline.  That case was argued before the US Supreme Court this week past.  Most articles described the justices as sounding dubious about the Texas claim on the water.

Earlier this year, Texas filed suit in the Supreme Court against the state of New Mexico, accusing that state of improperly impounding water that would otherwise flow down the Rio Grande to Texas.  If things proceed at their normal pace, this case will be heard in about two years.  As an aside, New Mexico is having its own internal water fights, as farmers with senior rights have made a priority call that would drastically limit the diversions that cities could make.  New Mexico and Texas operate under quite different sets of water law: in New Mexico the long-established farmers have priority, while in at least parts of Texas, farmers are near the bottom of the list.

Various Texas authorities believe that Mexico is failing to meet its obligations for water deliveries into the Rio Grande as set by the "Treaty of the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande" signed in 1944.  Those authorities are trying to find ways to force Mexico to increase its deliveries.  The International Boundary and Water Commission, an agency of the US federal government with responsibility for negotiating and enforcing such treaties (at least enforcing the US side of things), is not certain that Mexico actually owes Texas more water at this point in time.

Farmers in the Texas Panhandle and other parts of west Texas have been draining the Ogallala Aquifer at an increasing rate.  In response, some water districts in those parts of Texas are imposing withdrawal limits for the first time in history.  Over the last couple of years, restrictions on water withdrawals for the purpose of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells have been imposed on multiple aquifers.

ERCOT, the entity responsible for assuring the reliability of the Texas power grid, has received notice from the national reliability council that Texas does not have the necessary reserve power resources to meet reliability targets.  One of the factors limiting the ability for large new thermal generating plants to come online is the difficulty of identifying sources of water for cooling.  In 2011, multiple Texas power stations came close to having to shut down due to shortages of cooling water.

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