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Fledging coalition making long-term water plans for Central Texas

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 by Mark Richardson

Travis County is part of a fledgling effort to form a regional coalition that could identify and reserve future water supplies and eventually facilitate infrastructure to deliver water from aquifers in counties outside of Central Texas.With a resolution, Travis joins Hays, Comal and other counties in finding and in some cases securing backup supplies should current water resources become insufficient.


This past weekend’s torrential rain notwithstanding, some area officials are pushing ahead. In early October, Hays County officials approved a contact with a company called the Fourstar Group Forestar Group that would reserve up to 45,000 acre-feet per year of water for the next 50 years from the Simsboro Aquifer in Lee County. The reservation will cost Hays County about $1 million a year for the first five years of the contract, though there is currently no pipeline built or planned that could deliver the water.


Travis County has no current plans to execute a similar deal. But in February, Travis County Commissioners did unanimously approved a resolution to join with other Central Texas counties in a coalition which could serve as a framework for the counties to jointly reserve water rights from sources outside the region. The Commissioners’ adoption of the resolution did not commit Travis County to spend any money, but does give them a seat at the table as the coalition develops.


“It seems to make sense to cooperate and consolidate into a regional distribution network for water in Central Texas,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe in February. “The purpose would be to obtain, develop and direct water resources within the Central Texas region and seek funding from the state.The thinking is that rather than proceeding alone as a county, it makes a lot more sense to proceed as a coalition.”


The entity the county is joining – the Coalition of Central Texas Utilities Development Corporation, or UDC – started out as an entity to respond to the Lower Colorado River Authority’s sales of its small municipal water and wastewater utilities in 2010. According to Pix Howell, the UDC’s executive director, his goal was to keep water and wastewater service in the hands of the ratepayers rather than have them sold to investor-owned utilities. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 15, 2011)


Having basically accomplished that, Howell has set about to repurpose his coalition to broker water deals among Central Texas counties.


“We were successful in keeping about 86 percent of those utilities under the purview of the customers themselves,” Howell said. “I think that is also the purpose of this coalition – whatever water development occurs in Central Texas will have that ‘honest broker’ as an integral part of it. We hope it will keep water development under the control of local people instead of having some out-of-town corporation telling folks what they have to pay to get their water.”


He said any moves to reserve future water supplies are theoretical at this point, as there are no water transmission pipelines in place to carry such water from the source to Central Texas. But he says the coalition could have a strong hand in brokering such a deal without the counties beholden to outside corporations to construct such infrastructure.


Currently, the UDC has three counties – Travis, Hays and Comal – that have signed up as a part of the coalition. But Howell says he expects more to come on board in the near future as the drought continues to wreak havoc on the region’s long-term water supplies.


“A lot of what this is all about is economic development,” Howell told In Fact Daily. “When you have someone thinking about developing something in your area, one of the first things they ask is ‘How secure is your water supply?’You can tell them you have a long-term contract, but if they go out and look at Lake Travis right now, they could be a bit skeptical of your future supplies.”


Howell said his coalition will contain two types of counties: the “dry” counties with urban populations (Travis, Hays, Bastrop and others) that have a growing need for water, and the “wet” counties (Lee, Milam, Caldwell and others) that are rural in nature but have water resources through aquifers such as the Carrizo-Wilcox and the Simsboro.He said he sees other counties such as Burnet, Williamson, Bell and others eventually having an interest in the coalition.


Howell expects that groups like the UDC will have a keen interest if Proposition 6 on the Nov. 5 ballot – the State Water Plan – is approved by Texas voters. If approved, the legislation sets up a $2 billion dollar pool of money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for projects to keep Texas’ water infrastructure intact.Howell says coalition like the UDC would have a lot more clout in getting funding from the state for projects.


He said though there have been some informal discussions about organizing the UDC in recent months, though he thinks that demand for the coalition will accelerate in the near future. He expects more counties to sign on next year.

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