The Brazos River Authority’s 12-year quest to reserve and sell more water from its existing reservoirs and the river itself appears to be close to the finish line.

The Waco-based agency won tentative approval Jan. 20 from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for a “system operation” permit, despite stiff opposition from some Brazos basin interests and State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

The permit application is expected to come back to the TCEQ’s three-member board this summer after review of technical issues by administrative law judges concerning drought and sedimentation assumptions.

The BRA, an agency chartered by the state to manage and sell surface water in the Brazos basin, has had no new water in about eight years to sell to municipalities, farmers and industries.

The pending permit uses new accounting and management methods to claim additional water rights in the system without having to create more reservoirs.

BRA water resources manager Brad Brunett said it’s “probably the most complex case the TCEQ has processed,” and it has been delayed by formal opposition and changing state law.

He said the new permit will add about 100,000 acre-feet of water to the BRA’s existing claims to 661,901 acre-feet of water in 11 reservoirs. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre one foot deep. For comparison, Lake Waco, which is not part of the BRA’s water rights holdings and is unaffected by the permit, holds 79,000 acre-feet.

The new water sales would bring in about $7 million to the BRA yearly while meeting customer needs identified in the state water plan.

“We have a waiting list of entities who have expressed interest, with between 30 and 40 entities on that list,” Brunett said. “If you total that amount, it’s over 200,000 acre-feet. Even assuming this permit is issued and we’re able to contract for another 100,000 acre feet, we’re still not able to supply all their needs.”

Among the communities that need water are the city of Sugar Land and other communities near the Gulf of Mexico.

A variety of interests have used the state’s contested case hearing process to challenge the permit, including agricultural groups and homeowner groups around Lake Granbury, as well as the National Wildlife Federation and Freeport-based Dow Chemical Co.

Some parties, including the Lake Granbury Coalition, argued the permit does not follow state law because it fails to specify diversion points along the river.

Sen. Birdwell, whose district includes Waco, expressed his “firm opposition” to the “unprecedented” permit during the TCEQ hearing.

“First and most glaring, it would lock up all the unallocated water and return flows in the basin below Possum Kingdom,” he said.

Birdwell said the assumptions about water availability could be undermined by sedimentation and drought.

“At what point are we permitting air or dirt?” he said.

TCEQ commissioners asked for more analysis of sedimentation and drought models before the final approval. The existing permit application is based on a “drought of record” in the 1950s that likely has been superseded by the drought of 2011, Brunett said.

Brazos River Authority officials disputed the charge that the permit locks up all the Brazos basin’s water, noting that more than 5 million acre-feet of unclaimed water passes into the Gulf each year.

BRA officials say they calculated that they could make better use of existing reservoirs and river flows through a combination of methods:

Recalculating the “firm yield” or dependable supply of water the BRA has in its existing reservoirs, using methods the TCEQ adopted after the water was allocated.

Using surplus water in the Brazos River during high-flow times (such as the floods of 2015) to serve customers instead of meeting those needs with reservoir releases.

Counting “return flows” of treated effluent from municipal sewer plants to the river as part of the BRA’s supply. In dry summer months, those flows are a significant source for the river.

When the BRA proposed the system operation permit in 2004, the city of Waco objected to the return flow provision, noting that the city was looking to sell its own effluent to industrial users downstream.

But the city worked out a deal with the Brazos River Authority that assured the city’s right to sell effluent with certain restrictions. Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem III said the city is already selling part of its effluent to the Sandy Creek Power Plant and plans to use more within a dedicated pipe system within the city that would not be affected by the BRA’s claims.

Stem said he agrees that the BRA needs to be able to sell more water to meet the needs of users in the basin.

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