Advocates Scrutinize Sweeping Senate Water Supply Bill’s Strategy

Environmental impacts still need to be assessed

Central Texas can expect to keep experiencing drought (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Boosting the state’s water supply is as complicated as you might expect.

In a public hearing Monday, the Senate Water Agriculture, and Rural Affairs Committee’s Chair, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, introduced his Senate Bill 28, intended to bolster Texas’ dwindling water supply: “30% of the state water plan relies on conservation efforts, but we need bold new ideas.” With the goal of seven million acre-feet of new water supply by 2033, SB 28 would create the Water Supply Fund for Texas within the Texas Water Development Board, which would provide low-interest loans to projects including seawater and brackish groundwater desalination, reuse of produced water from fracking, and transferring water from other states to Texas. Monday, several water advocates expressed support for water loss mitigation efforts included in the bill, but also voiced concern that seawater desalination and produced water reuse will be “fiscally and environmentally irresponsible.”

Both Danielle Goshen of the National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club’s Alex Ortiz have warned of the safety and environmental concerns associated with some supply-side projects. Ortiz noted that byproducts of desalination efforts could impact coastal salinity gradients integral to sustaining ecosystems, and urged better regulatory standards. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has not adopted numeric coastal salinity standards, and instead goes by “narrative criteria,” which is “entirely dependent on … what aquatic life these bays and estuaries can support. When they have no numeric baseline for adding to those criteria, we see this shifting baseline over the period of 25 years. That’s a huge concern, because we’ve already seen changes in coastal wildlife over the preceding 25 years.”

“Produced water needs to be studied before we can have confidence that we are safely using any of these water resources outside of the oil and gas fields,” Goshen said, pointing to a Lege-commissioned report by the Texas Produced Water Consortium, which flagged the potential of adding around 256,000 acre-feet of treated produced water a year to the supply, “if pilot projects can prove that the water can be treated economically and to a quality that is protective of public health and the environment.” Sen. Perry did note that pilot projects should be implemented first, but as Goshen put it, “it’s just not in the bill.”

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