What should Texas do about integrated water-energy policy decisions?

When considering linkages and tradeoffs of water and energy objectives, the usual discussion among colleagues, industry, and government agencies is that we should search for holistic “win-win” situations—a simultaneous beneficial outcome for both energy and water goals.  

That is, we should first invest in new technologies and enact new policies that promote use of energy and water resources that are low-cost, clean, and good for the environment.  

But “win-win” situations are not always possible, especially when there are myriad of objectives emerging about this subject coupled with water becoming fully allocated in some basins. In fact, by definition, it is impossible to produce a single optimal outcome from multiple objectives.

This opinion piece is meant to provide context of the ongoing dispute—with focus on the Brazos River basin—that concerns surface water rights, farmers (Texas Farm Bureau), electric power, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).   

Brazos River and Electric Power Generation

The Brazos River basin in Texas presents an interesting, ongoing case study regarding the allocation of water and the right of the State of Texas, via the TCEQ, to have discretion in interpreting state surface water law.  

From late 2010 through most of 2011, Texas received the lowest 12-month rainfall on instrument record. Further, that year was also the hottest on record with many parts of the state experiencing a record number of 100F+ days. 

Eventually, water flows in some rivers became low enough that there was not enough flow for all water users to receive their legally allocated surface water.  In the case of drought, senior water rights holders can ask TCEQ to “call” younger water rights, effectively cutting off junior water rights holders from withdrawing water.    

In the case of the Brazos River basin in 2011, one senior water right holder at the end of the Brazos River (the Dow Chemical facility located in Freeport, Texas) asked TCEQ to call other water rights, effectively cutting off junior water rights holders from withdrawing water.  

As the TCEQ went down the prioritized list it eventually came to some cities and thermoelectric power plants. These power plants are designed to consume and withdraw water for cooling their operations (note: only two thermal power plants in Texas use air cooling). TCEQ did not want to alienate elected officials and their constituents by cutting off water access to power plants (and cities) thus reducing the electricity supply that would, in turn, increase electricity pricing during peak months. 

So, the TCEQ didn’t, and cited public health, safety and welfare concerns for its decision.  

The only other type of water rights to call? If you guessed farmers, you win the prize.   

Heck, farmers have both a large quantity of water rights and demand (over 50% of Texas water consumption is for irrigation), and they represent a low fraction of voters relative to the number of people that want, say, air conditioning.  

Legally this practice is allowed in an emergency, but the Texas Farm Bureau has sued TCEQ claiming its new doctrine cannot replace the prior appropriation doctrine for long-term governance.  

Over the past couple of years, the Farm Bureau has won an initial legal ruling along with two appeals. At the moment, the TCEQ is appealing, again—this time to the Texas Supreme Court.  

Let’s consider the Brazos river situation from a social rather than legal lens.  

TCEQ claims that in order to be “healthy” and “safe,” we can’t cut off water supply to thermal power generators. How much water and electricity do we need to be healthy and safe?  

First, consider water.  

According to the United Nations every human should have access to at least 50 liters/day of water that is safe (clean for washing, cooking, and drinking), affordable (< 3% of household income), and accessible (< 1 km and < 30 minutes away from home).  

In the Texas State Water Plan, TWDB estimates that 2010 municipal water demand in Texas was approximately 650 liters/person/day. One important safety issue is the maintenance of proper pressure in municipal water supplies for fighting fires.  However, even including this critical requirement, Texans can be safe and healthy at 25% of normal municipal water consumption.  

Some cities have conserved about as much as they can, and have moved to full municipal water recycling (e.g., toilet to tap). Since 2012, there is also talk in Texas of brackish (and seawater) desalination.  I, however, do not want to pay for a desalination facility as long as people are still watering their lawns.  

Desalination is financially viable only if the facility is operated full-time at or near capacity.  Given facility capital costs and labor-related expenses, desalination, as a solution for drought, would be cost-prohibitive for most municipalities.  If Texans conserved via 100 percent xeriscaping, and demand for reliable municipal water continued to increase, then I’d consider voting for desalination (as well as considering moving to a wetter location).

Now consider how much electricity a person needs to be healthy and safe.  A minimal amount of electricity (< 2% of Texas’ total of over 430 terawatt-hours per year) is required to run water and wastewater services.  Hospitals, police stations, traffic lights, and other city services also require electricity.  Texas’ 2014 retail sales of electricity were 379 TWh: 37% residential, 36% commercial, and 26% industrial.  

Would it be unsafe or unhealthy to consume less commercial or industrial electricity during a drought if it were required due to water right priority?  Certainly that action would not be the most economical option (e.g., curbing industrial production or commercial activity)—but the Texas Farm Bureau isn’t suing the TCEQ over an argument related to economics.

The economic argument is obvious but fallacious to use for an ultimate conclusion.  Consider the following simple back-of-the-envelope example:

Let’s compare dollars of revenue for every acre-foot of water consumption for Texas agriculture, wholesale electric power, and industrial production from the Freeport Dow Chemical facility. These are approximately 2,000, 30,000, and 130,000 $/ac-ft., respectively.  A more detailed analysis found that if you charge power plants for water consumption, then the cost of water consumption savings for electric power in Texas would be higher than each option in the State Water Plan.

If our water issues were only contingent upon the most economical use of water, we’d not irrigate crops, right? However, we don’t eat petrochemicals or electricity.  Thus economic analyses only take us so far in understanding how we should allocate water amongst competing demands including agriculture.

Practical solutions

So, what should Texas do?  

First, the good news: progress has been made on some fronts. The state water planning process was established to continue discussions, although it needs more input in terms of prioritization of options.  Senate Bill 3 (2007) established the process that has now set environmental flow standards for most of Texas’s major rivers, helping allocate water to nature. These flow standards can be updated over time and as new information becomes available.  

But there is still a regulatory need to link surface and groundwater legally. Even baby steps would be useful since Hydrology 101 tells us that a single water molecule can start as rain, flow on the ground, and penetrate into groundwater before later coming back to the surface.   

Water following this pathway is called a spring, and springs are the reason why people settled along the Hill Country and associated outcrops to begin with.  

Investments that recharge groundwater resources when Texas experiences high rainfall events are a good start.  We must help replenish groundwater during wet times since we turn to groundwater during dry times.  Aquifer storage and recovery projects also become more feasible because of the rise in Texas’s population. Plus, we’ve built about as many reservoirs as make sense (note: more water evaporates from lakes than for all municipal consumption).

Each river basin needs a tractable plan for water allocation during drought to avoid the current situation (i.e., lawsuits such as occurring now in the Brazos basin).  Here are some options:  

  • Establish a water allocation protocol, such as done by the Lower Colorado River Authority, with clear decision points and actions based upon water storage.
  • Open the process for farmers, or others with interruptible surface water rights, to temporarily lease water for other users (e.g., electric power). This can help compensate those with senior rights and who are willing to forgo some of their water withdrawal. Texas water rights holders can already lease and sell water rights but there is no open forum for this information. The open forum is not technically or legally necessary, but helpful for political and public acceptance and accountability. 
  • Finally, a resolution to the Texas Farm Bureau vs. TCEQ will hopefully resolve (temporarily at least) a question of whether power plants are guaranteed by TCEQ to have access to water.  This is important for future power plant installations.  

If the TCEQ guarantees that a developer will have access to water, then developers will be motivated to install wet cooling towers.  If developers aren’t afforded this guarantee, they may install dry cooling or other technologies that don’t operate via steam cycles with high need for cooling (wind, PV, and natural gas turbines).  

The good news? Increases are unlikely in water demand for “steam electric power” (for use by coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants) as projected by the Texas Water Development Board. And, almost all foreseeable power generation for Texas will be of the low-water variety (natural gas combined cycle, wind, and solar photovoltaic), and electricity demand is not growing as quickly as it has historically. 

For more information see:

  • Texas Water Development Board demand from 2012 State Water plan on their website (~733,000 ac-ft in 2010, see listed estimate and projections for “STEAM ELECTRIC”)
  • Water demand estimate for power generation in 2006 (~ 482,000 ac-ft. in 2006) (King et al., 2008)
  • Water demand estimate for power generation from 1970-2010 (~ 400,000 ac-ft in 2010) (Scanlon et al., 2013).


Dr. Carey King is Assistant Director at the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, and Research Associate with the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy within the Jackson School of Geosciences.  For additional information, visit www.careyking.com or write Carey at careyking@mail.utexas.edu.   

The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. 

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