Fort Worth

A never-ending thirst: Exploring Tarrant County’s quest for water

If nothing is done to develop new water sources in North Texas, projections suggest that we’ll face a shortfall of 456 billion gallons by 2070.

That’s enough water to nearly fill the equivalent of five Richland-Chambers lakes. Richland-Chambers, the state’s third largest reservoir, is owned by the Tarrant Regional Water District, which provides raw water to almost all of Tarrant County.

The sobering projection is part of the 2017 State Water Plan that is updated every five years and spells out the state’s water needs, by region, for the next 50 years.

The Texas Water Development Board approved the 2017 State Water Plan at its meeting on Thursday.

The Metroplex’s future water sources are laid out in the plan, including the controversial Marvin Nichols reservoir in Northeast Texas.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area, or Region C, says it’s critical that Marvin Nichols be built. Northeast Texas, or Region D, however, does not want to see the bottomland hardwood forest area flooded. The creation of Marvin Nichols has also been vehemently opposed by environmental groups.

After being forced into mediation by the Texas Water Development Board, officials with both regions agreed in October to keep Marvin Nichols in the plan, but pushed its construction date to 2070.

The dispute over Marvin Nichols illustrates the challenge of finding new sources of water.

While steady rainfall over the past year put an end to the recent drought, officials contend that the existing water supply cannot keep up with state growth projections.

Texas is projected to see a 73 percent increase in population by 2070, according to the water plan, and the DFW area is projected to see a 91 percent spike, to 14.3 million. Statewide, over half of the population growth is expected to happen in DFW and the Houston area, or Region H.

Bech Bruun, chairman of the Water Development Board, said more water providers are looking at options other than simply building new lakes, which will be critical to dealing with those gaps.

“There’s a very diverse array of projects,” Bruun said. “We’re seeing a significant increase in conservation and reuse.”

Head east for more water

The board’s State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, known as SWIFT, has become a key driver in funding water projects. It was created when legislators approved an appropriation of $2 billion from the state’s rainy-day fund.

Last year, Tarrant Regional received $440 million in low-interest SWIFT loans for the $2.3 billion Integrated Pipeline Project, which is being built in parternship with the city of Dallas. Bedford obtained $90 million in SWIFT funding for water system and water meter improvements, and Fort Worth got $76 million for advanced metering infrastructure, which allow more data to be collected on water use.

The Integrated Pipeline Project, or IPP, plays a signficant role in TRWD’s water plans over the next 50 years.

Almost all of the TRWD’s projects are in East Texas, where water is more plentiful.

When it is finished, the 150-mile pipeline, one of the largest currently under construction in the U.S., will be able to pump another 200 million gallons per day from Richland-Chambers and Cedar Creek Lake for TRWD. The two East Texas lakes currently account for 80 percent of the water district’s supply.

The first phase will be completed in 2018, and the pipeline will eventually tie into Lake Palestine, where Dallas has water rights. Dallas will get the capability of pumping another 150 million gallons per day through the pipeline.

The pipeline has faced some opposition, including Dallas businessman Monty Bennett, who filed several lawsuits against the water district trying to block condemnation of land that runs through part of his Henderson County ranch.

One lawsuit is pending before the Texas Supreme Court while another involving a cemetery association created on his property has yet to go to trial. About 30 landowners outside of Mansfield also became upset in 2014 about a section of the pipeline cutting through their property, saying it comes too close to homes, destroys property values and could have been re-routed. The water district district disagreed and refused to change the route.

After the pipeline is completed, the water district’s second step will be building the Cedar Creek Wetlands Project, which should occur sometime during the 2020s. Modeling is underway this year to determine when that water will be needed.

The next new reservoir to bring water to Tarrant County is scheduled to be Lake Tehuacana, the so-called third arm of Richland-Chambers.

Lake Tehuacana is scheduled to completed in 2040, but Wayne Owen, Tarrant Regional’s planning director, said all water providers worry about the difficulty of obtaining permits for new lakes.

“There are other reservoirs currently under development that are needed, and they are still waiting on permits,” Owen said. “What has happened is this permitting process has departed from its intention and made it difficult, if not impossible, to get these permits.”

Conservation plays huge role

There is a real question about how many more reservoirs will be constructed statewide because of local opposition and environmental issues.

“I really think at best only a few more reservoirs are going to be built in Texas,” said Ken Kramer, the water resources chairman of the Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club.

Instead, Kramer said cities should be looking at cutting consumption and using existing sources of water.

“I think you're going to see more attention to aquifer storage and recovery,” Kramer said. “That is a much more reasonable focus. The real future of water in Texas is more conservation, better management of demands during droughts, and finding more innovative sources, including brackish water desalination and desalination in coastal areas. But you must overcome energy costs and brine disposal issues to make desalination work.”

Owen said water conservation and reuse have cut estimates of how much water will be needed in 50 years. Projected customer use has dropped from 200 gallons per capita per day in the 2012 State Water Plan to 165 gallons in the 2017 State Water Plan.

“There was a very detailed review of population and water demand projections and a significant reduction of water demands compared to five years ago,” Owen said.

Groups like the Sierra Club contend the numbers should be lower.

Kramer said the goal of reducing daily water consumption to 140 gallons by 2070 doesn’t go far enough.

“We must say, however, that — while we appreciate seeing progress to reduce per-capita water use statewide, we do not take too much comfort that it might take 50 years for the state to reach what is really a moderate per-capita water use figure of 140,” Kramer said. “The state should strive to do better.”

Fort Worth’s gallons per capita per day consumption dropped from 233 gallons in 2000 to 159 in 2015, according to the Fort Worth Water Department.

Kramer applauded Fort Worth and Dallas for making twice-a-week outdoor watering restrictions permanent. That is a simple way to cut water consumption. Many cities across Texas saw outdoor watering soar when drought restrictions were lifted last summer. In Tarrant County, many residents became upset as their water bills skyrocketed late last summer.

Always looking for options

Even with water conservation a growing part of the strategy, it is challenge to meet long-term goals without new lakes.

Pushing Marvin Nichols back to 2070 leaves TRWD with the need for another water source between 2050 and 2060. In the 2017 Water Plan, that would come from Lake Palestine, where Dallas has water rights. By the time the state water plan is updated again in five years, Owen expects that to change.

TRWD is studying groundwater options, including aquifer storage and recovery, where water is injected underground and stored for later use. Other possibilities are building more man-made wetlands closer to the DFW area and looking at indirect reuse of treated wastewater from Trinity River Authority wastewater plants.

Wichita Falls gained national attention during the last drought for direct reuse, where it blended a 50-50 split of treated wastewater and lake water at its Cypress Water Treatment Plant. It is now working toward indirect reuse, where treated wastewater will be pumped into Lake Arrowhead.

If building new reservoirs proves impossible, one possibility would be getting water from the Toledo Bend reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border.

“That is always an option,” Owen said. “The problem is it’s the most expensive option. You have to use an incredible amount of energy to pump that water up here. But if we had to do it, we could do it. We're good at building pipelines.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna