State Representative Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) recently called for a new bold plan to solve the Lone Star state’s outsized water challenges in a guest column in the Waco Tribune Herald. He proposed “an open dialogue with our neighboring states and investing in new technology to bolster our state’s water supply, rather than relying on the same approaches that have failed to provide us a water supply for future generations.” He finds Texas’s future can be found outside courtrooms and in conjunctive groundwater-surface water projects based on interstate cooperation.
A New Texas Diplomacy
“Rather than asking the U.S. Supreme Court to call the shots when it comes to trading water with other states, Texas should lead by developing a five-state water council to address our water shortages and their surplus inventory in a very humble way.” The goal is to “negotiate a compromise that will ultimately result in a modern-day water project the size of Toledo Bend.” (Toledo Bend is a Texas-Louisiana joint project started in the 1950s for water supply, hydroelectric power and recreation. It is the nation’s only public water conservation and hydroelectric power project undertaken without federal funding in its permanent financing.)
Representative Larson’s idea is a sound one in light of Texas’s drubbing before the U.S. Supreme Court this year when Texas tried to use the Red River Compact as a legal tool to force Oklahoma to approve a Texas project diverting water from Oklahoma tributaries before water flowed into the Red River.
New Storage Strategy
Acknowledging his state’s efforts in the 1950s that built over 60% of Texas’s current surface water storage, Mr. Larson said “our generation of Texas leadership needs to respond similarly to our own historic drought using emerging technologies such as desalination and aquifer storage and recovery.” He noted that surface storage suffers from significant evaporative losses, especially in times of drought. Taking the lead from other states (Florida and Nevada), he suggests that Texas “should explore how states in west and southern sectors are storing water underground.”
Groundwater storage of surface waters (e.g., conjunctive use) is a rising water management tool throughout the west. Local interests in Bakersfield, CA have created a 1,000,000 AF “groundwater bank”. The adjudicated Chino Basin in Southern California has developed tools for the use of groundwater storage capacity for surface water. The Cadiz project in the Mojave Desert is another proposal for conjunctive use. Representative Larson is on the front-edge of a trend in western water.
Strategic Water Reserve?
Mr. Larson likens his thoughts to “much like the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.” I hope that the reference was rhetorical rather than a belief that the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve deserves status as a blueprint for Texas action. Instead, the call for multi-state action must, ironically, offer the pathway to decentralized action.
Water does not have the same degree of geographic connectivity as oil. Groundwater resources are ultimately local. The policy challenge will be how to generate the necessary changes in local groundwater regulation to carry out the important policy goal of facilitating conjunction use of surface water with groundwater.
One of the benefits of Texas’s legislative institutions is that it alternates between legislative action (in odd-numbered years) with an “interim period” (in even-numbered years). The interim period provides Texas the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day treadmill of the legislative process, think about long-term strategic issues, and prepare for the next legislative session. Representative Larson has stepped up and offered some bold ideas that call for serious consideration and follow-up.