Matthew Tresaugue, 8:54 a.m.
Lake Palo Duro was pitched to and perceived by many residents of the Texas Panhandle as the next logical step in securing a reliable future water supply.
Nearly three decades later, a wicked drought has reduced the reservoir to a shallow pond, unable to provide a drop to the communities that have spent tens of millions of dollars to build and maintain it.
The story of Lake Palo Duro, a well-intended project that has failed to deliver, is particularly instructive now, as Texas lawmakers consider investing as much as $2 billion to jump-start a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other water infrastructure for a drought-prone state.
The lake, about 100 miles north of Amarillo, has been filled to half of capacity only twice – and just briefly – in the past decade. Statewide, about 40 major water-supply reservoirs have pools less than half of capacity, and some are nearly dry, Texas Water Development Board data shows.
And the Texas state climatologist, Texas A&M University’s John Nielsen-Gammon, has predicted reservoir levels could drop to 50 percent as a statewide average by early September because of below-normal rainfall and evaporation.
A Christmas list?
The situation raises questions about the value of more reservoirs to catch rain in an increasingly hotter, drier Texas. “With regular rainfall, it’s money in the bank,” said Ronald Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M. “But it vanishes quickly in dry times.”
It’s been dry enough to infuse the Legislature with a jolt of heightened urgency, with officials drawing connections to the devastating drought of the 1950s, the worst in Texas history.
That drought led the state to build dozens of major reservoirs – an audacious effort that helped to drive Texas’ population and economic growth.
The latest version of the state’s water plan proposes adding 26 large reservoirs over the next half-century, at a cost of $13.6 billion. The new reservoirs account for 17 percent of the additional water supplies needed to avoid grave shortages.
Some lawmakers say the plan resembles a Christmas list and not all of the projects will be built. But reservoirs remain popular because they are easier to grasp than other strategies, such as turning sewage into drinking water.
When pressed by lawmakers in January to prioritize projects, the state water board placed five reservoirs among the top 20. The unofficial list focused on the areas with the highest population growth.
Local and regional officials are aggressively pushing reservoir projects that did not make the list. The Lower Colorado River Authority has proposed a $206 million reservoir to provide irrigation water for rice farmers, and Abilene has plans for a $240 million reservoir, the most expensive project in the city’s history.
While planners see the projects as necessary, some policy experts are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming in the future each Texan will use the same amount per day. Studies show people across the country are using less water now than they were 30 years ago.
Sharlene Leurig, an Austin-based expert on water-infrastructure financing at Ceres, a nonprofit research group, said cities should push to reduce daily consumption though conservation and efficiency because “it’s the cheapest water available.” In contrast, building big-ticket projects to meet future demand that does not materialize will put the credit ratings of public water systems at risk and significantly increase tax and water bills for customers.
Under bills moving through the Legislature, the state would transfer billions of dollars from the unencumbered rainy day fund to a revolving, low-interest loan program for water-supply projects. The House was scheduled to debate Monday how much money to put into the program.
The loans would cover a project’s upfront expenses, but the debt and subsequent costs still must repaid by local water utilities. To do so, they will need to sell even more water, and at higher rates, Leurig said.
What’s more, once a reservoir is built, there is no assurance the water will be there. Analysts say some Texas reservoirs lose more water because of evaporation than people use.
“Reservoirs have their place,” said Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which has plans to build three off-channel reservoirs. “The key is location. There is no point to build one in West Texas and have all that water evaporate.”
Build on the wetter side
Of the 26 reservoirs listed in the state water plan, 20 would be built west of Interstate 45. Any new lake should be built east of the freeway, the wetter side of the state, but even those projects will require big pipelines to move water to urban areas, said Kaiser, the Texas A&M professor.
For example, the most expensive item in the water plan is a $1.8 billion pipeline that would send water from existing East Texas reservoirs to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In the water-starved Panhandle, officials have yet to build the pipes to connect Lake Palo Duro to Moore County, about 60 miles southwest of the reservoir. There is not enough water in the lake to pump.
Judge Rhoades said the county voted for the lake project in the 1980s to supplement water being pulled from the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge but slowly diminishing underground pool. Since then, the county has spent more than $45 million on Lake Palo Duro, but not seen a drop from it, he said.
In hindsight, Rhoades said building a facility to recycle wastewater into drinking water would be a better investment – an idea that drew snickers not too long ago.
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