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Liquid Assets: The State of Texas’ Water Resources

Regional Water Planning

Regional Water Planning

The Texas Water Development Board’s (TWDB’s) 2007 State Water Plan identifies 330 water management strategies from around the state that could add about 9 million acre-feet annually to the Texas water supply by 2060. Some of these strategies require significant upfront capital costs while others require users to pay fees or provide incentives for users to change their usage.

TWDB estimates that these projects – which involve new reservoirs, desalination plants and conveyance/distribution infrastructure conservation measures and increased transfers between river basins – would cost the state $30.7 billion in current dollars by 2060. To put that figure in perspective, the total fiscal 2008 state budget, including federal funds, was $85.7 billion.

TWDB also estimates that the cost of not implementing these strategies, assuming widespread drought conditions, would be about $9.1 billion in current dollars in 2010 and $98.4 billion in 2060. According to TWDB, if Texas fails to implement the State Water Plan, drought in 2060 could mean that up to 85 percent of Texans would not have enough water to sustain their current levels of use during a report of drought of record conditions.1

The economic impacts listed above are estimates based on a variety of assumptions made by TWDB and should only be considered as an approximation of what these costs could be. To generate the estimates above, TWDB assumed a drought of record occurring in every part of the state simultaneously. While not without precedent, this is an unlikely proposition. The analysis does not estimate the likelihood of a drought of record occurring or discount costs based on the likelihood of drought.

The analysis also assumes stability in water usage patterns and does not consider the effect that increasing costs for water during times of shortage may have on water usage by commercial, agricultural, residential and other users. The model used by TWDB assumes that the structure of the Texas economy will remain constant over the next 50 years, and does not predict migration of Texas citizens out of economically inefficient industries.

Finally, the analysis assumes that economic inputs such as labor move in “lockstep” with changes in output. As acknowledged by TWDB, however, there may be economic, contractual and practical reasons why a business that was negatively affected by drought likely would not layoff its employees if the drought conditions were expected to pass. Further, some employees who are laid off likely would find jobs in other sectors that were not harmed by drought, or would find employment in different part of the state. Thus, according to TWDB, “direct losses for employment and secondary losses in sales and employment should be considered an upper bound.”2

The 2007 State Water Plan identifies 330 individual water management strategies from around the state that could add about 9 million acre-feet annually to the Texas water supply by 2060.

Aerial view of dam in Canyon Lake, Texas.

Water Management Strategies

Each of the more than 320 water management strategies in the State Water Plan can be categorized in one of six general areas: conjunctive use, conservation, desalination, groundwater, surface water and water reuse.

Conjunctive Use

Conjunctive use water management strategies involve combining the use of groundwater and surface water in a way that optimizes the benefits of each. An example of conjunctive use is when water providers use surface water as their primary water supply and use groundwater only to meet peak needs or to supplement supplies in times of drought.


Conservation generally involves the management of existing water supplies to reduce demand and increase efficiencies in use. The water plan contains two key types of conservation: municipal water conservation and irrigation water conservation.

Municipal water conservation strategies attempt to reduce water use in urban areas through a variety of social or technological approaches.

Social approaches include changing water pricing structures to encourage more efficient water use and increasing awareness of the importance of conservation through promotional and educational campaigns. Programs that explain water bills, offer plant tours and school programs and provide other educational and outreach activities have proven beneficial in increasing water conservation. Technological approaches include installing more efficient plumbing fixtures in homes and businesses.

Specific municipal conservation strategies in the 2007 State Water Plan include aggressive water-wasting fixture replacement programs; water-efficient landscaping codes; water loss and leak detection programs; educational and public awareness programs; rainwater harvesting; and changes in water rate structures.

Irrigation water conservation involves increasing the efficiency of water use in agricultural operations. Approaches recommended in the 2007 water plan include:

  • irrigation water use management, such as irrigation scheduling, volumetric measurement of water use, crop management (leaving sufficient residue on the soil surface by eliminating plowing to reduce wind and/or water erosion) and on-farm irrigation water audits;
  • land management systems, including furrow dikes (small earthen dams), land leveling, conversion from irrigated to dryland farming, and brush control/management;
  • on-farm delivery systems, such as lining of farm ditches to catch rainfall and run off, low-pressure sprinkler systems, drip/micro irrigation systems; and
  • water district delivery systems, including lining of district irrigation canals to reduce water leakage and replacing irrigation district and lateral canals with pipelines.

In addition to municipal and irrigation water conservation, water consumption by manufacturing, mining and steam electrical generation interests is a growing concern for the state. Some regions have engaged in conservation efforts in these areas, but such strategies tend to be restricted to areas of the state with significant concentrations of these industries.

Examples of conservation techniques used for manufacturing, mining and steam electrical generation include using water that has a low mineral content for cooling and stabilizing or minimizing variations in water levels to prevent the need for large surges of water. For mining and steam electrical generation, the primary conservation technique is to develop more groundwater and surface water supplies at or near the operation, thereby reducing water lost during transportation or evaporation.


Desalination is the process of converting salty seawater or brackish (semi-saline) groundwater into usable water.


Recommended water management strategies for groundwater involve:

  • drilling new wells and increasing pumping from existing wells;
  • temporarily overdrafting aquifers (that is extracting more water than can be recharged), during drought conditions to supplement water supplies;
  • expanding the capacity and number of water treatment plants so that more groundwater supplies can meet water quality standards; and
  • supplementing water supplies in dry areas with water from an area with a water surplus.

Surface Water

Surface water management strategies generally consist of building new reservoirs; moving water from one area to another through pipelines or natural waterways; purchasing additional water through contracts with major water providers; obtaining additional water rights; and reallocating water in existing reservoirs.

Water Reuse

Water reuse is simply the use of reclaimed water – wastewater that has been treated to remove solids and certain impurities, and then put to a beneficial use. Such water can be used in irrigation, cooling and washing.

In August 2007, Fort Bliss and the City of El Paso opened the second largest inland desalination water plant in the world. The Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant produces 27.5 million gallons of fresh water daily using reverse osmosis (RO).

El Paso: New Water Sources

Nestled against the Rio Grande, the Franklin Mountains and the state of New Mexico in the Chihuahuan Desert, the city of El Paso’s natural beauty has attracted settlers and tourists for centuries. But El Paso’s location in the arid western part of the state creates a significant challenge – water supply.

El Paso receives an average of less than ten inches of rainfall annually, has no reservoirs and shares its only surface water source – the Rio Grande – with both New Mexico and Mexico. As a result, the Rio Grande is constrained by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and by an international treaty downstream.3

Just a few years ago, officials worried that El Paso would run out of water by 2020. However, aggressive water conservation efforts coupled with the discovery of abundant, if brackish, groundwater in the Hueco-Mesilla Bolson have provided the city with sufficient water supplies decades into the future.4 (“Bolson” means “basin”–the Hueco and Mesilla aquifers are separate aquifers that overlay each other but have little interconnection.)5

In August 2007, Fort Bliss and the City of El Paso opened the second largest inland desalination water plant in the world. The Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant produces 27.5 million gallons of fresh water daily using reverse osmosis (RO). RO filters resemble thick rolls of wax paper through which saline or semi-saline water is forced under high pressure, filtering out salt and other impurities. El Paso Water Utilities estimates that about 83 percent of the brackish water put into the system is recovered as potable water. The resulting concentrate is disposed of carefully in a disposal facility or underground injection well.6

Regional Water Plans

Each local planning group evaluates potentially feasible water management strategies based on its projected needs, and identifies the projects needed to meet future water needs. TWDB compiles plans from each of the state’s 16 regions into the State Water Plan and submits the plan to the Legislature, along with policy recommendations needed to implement it. A detailed look at the cost and status of each region’s plan follows.

  • The Panhandle Region (A) includes the counties of Armstrong, Carson, Childress, Collingsworth, Dallam, Donley, Hall, Hansford, Hartley, Hemphill, Hutchinson, Gray, Lipscomb, Moore, Ochiltree, Oldham, Potter, Randall, Roberts, Sherman and Wheeler.
  • Region B includes the counties of Archer, Baylor, Clay, Cottle, Foard, Hardeman, King, Montague, Wichita, Wilbarger and part of Young.
  • Region C includes the counties of Collin, Cooke, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Fannin, Freestone, Grayson, Jack, Kaufman, Navarro, Parker, Rockwall, Tarrant, Wise and part of Henderson.
  • The North East Texas Region (D) includes the counties of Bowie, Camp, Cass, Delta, Franklin, Gregg, Harrison, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Marion, Morris, Rains, Red River, Upshur, Titus, Van Zandt, Wood and part of Smith.
  • The Far West Texas Region (E) includes the counties of Brewster, Culberson, El Paso, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Presidio and Terrell.
  • Region F includes the counties of Andrews, Borden, Brown, Coke, Coleman, Concho, Crockett, Crane, Ector, Glasscook, Howard, Irion, Kimble, Loving, Martin, Mason, McCulloch, Menard, Midland Mitchell, Pecos, Reagan, Reeves, Runnels, Schleicher, Scurry, Sterling, Sutton, Tom Green, Upton, Ward and Winkler.
  • The Brazos Region (G) includes the counties of Bell, Bosque, Brazos, Burleson, Callahan, Comanche, Coryell, Eastland, Erath, Falls, Fisher, Grimes, Hamilton, Haskell, Hill, Hood, Johnson, Jones, Kent, Knox, Lampasas, Lee, Limestone, McLennan, Milam, Nolan, Palo Pinto, Robertson, Shackelford, Somervell, Stephens, Stonewall, Taylor, Throckmorton, Washington, Williamson and Young.
  • Region H includes the counties of Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Montgomery, San Jacinto, Walker, Waller, and parts of Polk and Trinity.
  • The East Texas Region (I) includes the counties of Anderson, Angelina, Cherokee, Hardin, Houston, Jasper, Jefferson, Nacogdoches, Newton, Panola, Orange, Rusk, Sabine, San Augustine, Shelby, Tyler and parts of Henderson, Polk, Smith and Trinity.
  • The Plateau Region (J) includes the counties of Bandera, Edwards, Kerr, Kinney, Real and Val Verde.
  • The Lower Colorado Region (K) includes the counties of Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Colorado, Fayette, Gillespie, Llano, Matagorda, Mills, San Saba, Travis and parts of Hays and Wharton.
  • The South Central Texas Region (L) includes the counties of Atascosa, Bexar, Caldwell, Calhoun, Comal, Dewitt, Dimmit, Frio, Goliad, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Karnes, Kendall, LaSalle, Medina, Refugio, Uvalde, Victoria, Wilson, Zavala and part of Hays.
  • The Rio Grande Region (M) includes the counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Maverick, Starr, Webb, Willacy and Zapata.
  • The Coastal Bend Region (N) includes the counties of Aransas, Bee, Brooks, Duval, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, Live Oak, McMullen, Nueces and San Patricio.
  • The Llano Estacado Region (O) includes the counties of Bailey, Briscoe, Castro, Cochran, Crosby, Dawson, Dickens, Deaf Smith, Floyd, Garza, Gains, Hale, Hockley, Lamb, Lynn, Lubbock, Motley, Parmer, Swisher, Terry and Yoakum.
  • The Lavaca Region (P) includes the counties of Jackson, Lavaca and part of Wharton.


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