The ebb and flow of a sustainable water plan

Texas has been engaged in planning for future water needs for over 50 years. Beginning in 1961, the plans were developed at the state level, through various predecessor agencies to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) and the TWDB itself.  

In 1997, the year of the last state-developed plan, the Texas legislature set up a new process, centered on “bottom-up” development of water plans across 16 regions of the state. The TWDB was tasked with managing, funding, and providing guidance for the new process, along with developing a state plan based on the regional plans.  The process, repeated every five years, has produced three plans: 2002, 2007 and 2012. Another round is currently underway, scheduled for completion in 2017. 

As the drought in Texas has intensified over the last several years, the water plan has taken on new prominence.  In advance of the 2013 session of the Texas legislature, TWDB, advocates of new state funding for water projects, policy-makers, and the press focused heavily on the two conclusions of the 2012 State Water Plan:  

  • Texas would face a demand/supply gap of 8.3 million acre-feet in 2060; and
  • The price tag of meeting increased demand would be $ 53 billion.

A new report from the Texas Center for Policy Studies examines whether the planning process is producing useful results, and, if not, how it can be improved.  

Highlights of Findings and Recommendations

The report, Learning from Drought: Next Generation Water Planning for Texas, shows that the 2060 demand/supply gap of 8.3 million acre-feet/year projected by the 2012 State Water Plan is greatly over-stated.   

The report provides several examples of how the 2012 plan overstates future water demand.  It shows that the projected 2060 demand could be reduced by 3.5 million acre-feet per year using reasonable municipal demand and conservation projections in the Dallas/Fort Worth area (Region C); appropriate irrigation demand projections in the Southern High Plains/Ogallala (Region O); and more realistic estimates for steam electric generation.

On the supply side, Chapter 4 has examples of how available supplies could be greatly extended or increased by: (1) reasonable drought contingency plan implementation (providing an estimated 1.5 million acre-feet/year); and (2) increased use of brackish water.  

Demand/Supply Findings Summary:

Area of analysis



Reduction in Region C municipal demand/supply gap

Over 1 million acre-feet per year of the projected demand/supply gap could be reduced with new projections and a 140 GPCD 2060 target for all municipal user groups

Would eliminate the need for Marvin Nichols (at least).  Marvin Nichols alone would cost at least $ 3.3 billion.

Eliminate over-inflation of Region O irrigation demand

Eliminates 2.146 million acre-feet per year of over-projected demand


Demands in Region O should reflect reality of limitations on use of the Ogallala Aquifer. 

More reasonable steam electric power generation demand projections 

Reduce SEPG demand projection by at least 500,000 acre-feet per year by 2060

Planning should be based on reasonable need for new electric generation, as scoped by the Bureau of Economic Geology, not on regional desires for attracting new coal-fired power plants.

Implement effective drought management plans for all major Texas reservoirs

Extend existing supply by an estimated 1.5 million acre-feet per year

Estimated using reasonable drought triggers applied to allof Texas’ major supply reservoirs. 

Taken together, these four items would reduce the projected 2060 demand/supply gap from 8.3 million acre-feet per year (as projected in the 2012 State Water Plan) to about 3.3 million acre-feet per year.

The reduction in the demand-supply gap would significantly reduce the price tag for the state water plan.  If such changes were made in the water planning process, the state would also have a clearer path to prioritizing funding for new strategies to fill the gap. 

The report also finds that more emphasis on greater use of brackish groundwater desalination, better management of the existing supply for steam electric power generation, and broader implementation of land stewardship to benefit streams and aquifers would all contribute to a more sustainable and affordable water plan for Texas.

A sustainable water plan for Texas should be based on demand scenarios that consider a range of possible futures.  This would include a future in which conservation and drought contingency planning play a much more significant role than envisioned by the 2012 plan.

The progress demonstrated in several Texas communities over the last few years of drought has shown what is possible with sufficient political will and innovation. A scenario-based planning approach can help make clear the benefits of avoiding development of costly, and potentially environmentally damaging, new water projects that may ultimately never be needed.  

Ultimately, the report’s policy recommendations for improving the planning process fall into six categories: 

  1. Developing more realistic demand projections; 
  2. Ensuring more effective use of existing supplies;
  3. Making healthy rivers and bays and vibrant economies co-equal goals to the other goals of the planning process;
  4. Moving away from the 50-year, single-scenario planning approach to examining a wide range of both demand and supply scenarios;
  5. Improving baseline data and modeling for all aspects of planning; and
  6. Making broader policy improvements in Texas water management that will benefit development of a sustainable water plan.

Planning a state’s water future is a difficult and complex task, especially in a place as large and diverse as Texas. The current planning process reflects many years of extensive good-faith efforts from a wide range of policymakers and stakeholders. Nevertheless, the drought has provided new insights into both the vulnerability of communities whose short-term water needs have been ignored and into the willingness of Texans to adopt innovative and far-reaching water conservation practices, especially to reduce peak water use during drought conditions.

Combined with the developments in state water financing, a more active and prominent role for the Texas Water Development Board, and heightened public interest in water, now is the time to examine whether Texas has a planning process that is up to the task. 


Mary Kelly, former Environmental Defense Fund lawyer, is the principal of the environmental consulting firm Parula, LLC. Follow Mary on Twitter @mekriver.



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