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Foster: Water solutions sought across the West

By John D. Foster
Oct. 3, 2014 at 11 p.m.


Texans pride themselves for seldom following in the tracks of Californians, but the prolonged Western drought is forging new ideas on water conservation and resources in the Golden Bear Republic that may be beneficial to the Lone Star State.

Water shortages are increasingly critical in both states. In Texas, for example, Wichita Falls is so desperate for drinking water that the city is implementing a plan to treat raw sewer water for home use.

In California, underground wells in a small town near Bakersfield dried up, leaving 1,000 residents without water. County emergency workers and volunteers are going door to door delivering bottled drinking water.

California is now turning to solutions offshore, with the largest water desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere built near San Diego. The $1 billion plant will draw 100 million gallons of water per day from the Pacific Ocean and remove salt using an elaborate filtration system, producing 50 million gallons of drinking water. The plant will furnish enough water for 300,000 San Diego County residents.

"There's no more cheap water available," Sandy Kerl, who runs the San Diego Water Authority, said in an interview with CBS News.

The authority imports a majority of its water from drought-ravaged parts of California and the Colorado River basin. The city will buy all the water produced at the plant starting next year, with water bills increasing from $5 to $7 a month to cover the cost.

"It will represent 7 percent of our total water supply," Kerl said. "It's a significant chunk of water that, in the events of a drought, will be 100 percent reliable for this region."

The only other major desalination plant in the U.S. is in Tampa, Florida. Until now, such plants have been considered too expensive to build and operate, but California's unending drought has made it necessary.

And to people who may complain that water prices are going to be too high, Kerl says, "If you turn on your faucet and no water comes out, is that water too expensive? If you don't have it, it's not too expensive."

At least two more desalination plants are in the planning stage along the California coast, and Texas may consider building similar plants for the growing population of this state. Texas voters already approved a $2 billion withdrawal from the state's rainy day fund to pay for future water projects.

The cost for long-range water solutions is estimated at $50 billion with most of the emphasis on drought-afflicted areas. East Texas is blessed with adequate water resources for the present, but a long-term drought here would create problems in our region as well.

The Texas Legislature had hearings earlier this summer to delve into strengthening water supplies in light of the multi-year drought that now encompassed about 70 percent of the state.

Lawmakers discussed a variety of water problems, such as fighting invasive plant species and reducing water evaporation on lakes and reservoirs by spraying chemicals to suppress evaporation.

Some of the solutions, such as treating wastewater, also present unique downsides.

"If we see more and more communities trying to capture and keep their return flows, then we're going to have a heck of a problem, not only for the bays and estuaries but also for communities, farmers and industries all down the stream," said Rep. Doug Miller of New Braunfels.

The Legislature also heard about plans to balance urban versus rural water needs by the Texas Water Development Board for improving water infrastructure in the state.

The board recently appointed an ombudsman to represent rural communities in development of new water projects. The ombudsman will travel throughout the state to explain newly published rules on how applications for water projects will be evaluated for funding.

Urban projects will get high points for serving larger populations, but rural projects will score high for supplying a large portion of local users total water demand. At least 10 percent of funding must go to rural projects.

<em>- John D. Foster, a Carthage resident and former editor of the Panola Watchman, is a regular contributor to the Saturday Forum.</em>

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