The future of Texas is water. And that means not only preserving the life of existing water supply resources but finding new ways to access water.
More than 100 people filled the Carleen Bright Arboretum in Woodway on Feb. 27 to hear from Brazos River Authority General Manager and CEO David Collinsworth and other staff members about the state of the Brazos basin. The second annual State of the Basin meeting highlighted BRA priorities and projects. Guests from across the Brazos River basin heard an update on several on-going projects and goals across BRA operations.
Collinsworth provided an update on a proposed water supply storage reservoir planned for construction near the city of Wallis in Austin County, built on Allens Creek, a tributary of the Brazos River.
The proposed project, which is currently jointly owned by the BRA and the City of Houston, is unique in that it would be an off-channel reservoir and would not dam the Brazos River. Instead, the goal is to pump water from the Brazos to the reservoir when the river is high. Water in the reservoir would then be available during times of drought for those in the lower basin and to meet expected growth in demand due to population increases.
The state Legislature passed a bill in 2019 requiring the city to sell its rights to the reservoir to the BRA since Houston had taken no steps to build the project over the past decade.
The city responded to that legislation by suing the State of Texas and the BRA. While the exact timeline for the legal process is uncertain, the BRA believes it is in the best interest of Texas to move forward with the federal permitting process for the reservoir.
“Texas needs Allens Creek,” Collinsworth said. “The Brazos basin needs Allens Creek.”
Drought vs. Floods
The past year has eloquently demonstrated how quickly the state of Texas can move from drought to flooding to drought again.
BRA Water Services Manager Aaron Abel illustrated to guests the ebb and flow of weather conditions across the Brazos River basin and how these conditions affect the water supply. The first 10 months of 2018 were extremely dry, and the total amount of water available in the system was down to 80 percent, Abel said. The BRA holds Texas water rights for three reservoirs that it owns and operates for water supply – Possum Kingdom Lake, Lake Granbury, and Lake Limestone. The BRA also holds Texas water rights and contracts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for storage space in eight multi-purpose federal reservoirs – Lakes Whitney, Belton, Proctor, Somerville, Stillhouse Hollow, Granger, Georgetown and Aquilla.
In late September 2018, the weather switch flipped, Abel said. The basin went from drought to extremely wet conditions, and by June 2019, all the reservoirs were full again, Abel said. While drought returned that summer, recent rains and proper water supply management has ensured the total water supply was 97 percent full as of Feb. 26, he said. Six of the 11 reservoirs were full as of that date, and, over the last month, the BRA has increased the system total about 6 percent, he said.
In the shadow of Hurricane Harvey and some of the historic floods that have occurred over the past few years, the state passed several bills to start a stakeholder-driven state flood planning process, Abel said, and also took steps to provide funding for future flood control projects. Money was allocated by the state to go toward grants and low-interest loans to fund flood infrastructure. The goal is to have that plan approved by September 2024. The BRA could serve as the administrative agent for one or more of the proposed flood planning regions, and has hopes that the final proposal adopted by the Texas Water Development Board divides the Brazos River basin into smaller sections as the different aspects of the basin experience flooding in different ways, Abel said.
The BRA continues to work with the US Fish and Wildlife Seervice on what’s called a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances. The plan produces guidelines that ensure those along the Brazos River receive the water that’s needed, and the right environmental measures are taken that might affect those animals on or nearing state and federal endangered species lists, said Tiffany Malzahn, BRA environmental and compliance manager. The process should be completed by the end of 2021, she said.
Collinsworth said there’s a fine balance between the ecology of the Brazos River and the role species play. Any species listed under the Endangered Species Act should only be included as the result of good science and adequate data, as does the required amount of water needed for that species, he said.
“It needs to be science-based so we can better control the resources we have,” he said.
The BRA also has several large improvement projects for each of its three reservoirs, said Blake Kettler, BRA technical services manager.
All five, 29-foot tall, 40-foot-wide gates at Lake Limestone’s Sterling C. Robertson Dam will be replaced. Built in 1978, replacement of the gates and other rehabilitation work will help ensure the structure’s longevity. The gates are original to the dam, which is located on a tributary of the Brazos River, the Navasota River, in Limestone, Robertson and Leon counties.
The BRA is also in the process of constructing a groundwater well as part of the East Williamson County Regional Water System, Kettler said. Through conjunctive use with water supply from Lake Granger, the well will provide an additional 5,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year. An acre-foot is commonly used to measure water volume. It is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) with one foot of water. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons of water.
The BRA’s Reservoir System Maintenance Unit – RSMU - is building and installing new side seal plates on each pier that supports the spillway gates at BRA’s oldest dam, Morris Sheppard Dam at Possum Kingdom Lake, Kettler said. The plates provide a surface for the gates to seal against and prevent leakage of water when the gates are closed. The staff is also completing a concrete assessment and service-life extension project for the dam, which was completed in 1941. The project will identify, investigate, and improve elements of the dam critical to extending its life beyond its 100th birthday.
The projects, though, are just a part of regular dam upkeep, which is a daily job performed at all three BRA owned reservoirs.
Collinsworth said the BRA is working not only to maintain and extend the life of current structures but on major priorities to ensure funding is used in the most efficient way possible and adequately invest in the future. The BRA is entirely self-supporting, except for occasional governmental grants to help pay the costs of specific projects. The BRA does not levy or collect taxes; rather, it maintains and operates reservoirs and treatment systems using revenues from the customers it serves.
Collinsworth encouraged anyone interested in more information on any of the presented topics to reach out if there is interest in having a certain topic explained to their local city council, governmental entity, or community meeting through the BRA Speakers Bureau by calling 888-922-6272 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The full presentation is available here.