The Waco-based Brazos River Authority has won a 12-year battle to sell more Brazos basin water without building a single new dam.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last week approved a “system operation permit” that apportions about 100,000 more acre-feet to the agency by changing how water is accounted for.
The approval means that the BRA, a state-chartered water management agency, can sell additional water to cities and industries for the first time in eight years.
BRA officials said there’s a waiting list of potential customers for the water, but contracts won’t be inked until next year.
In the meantime, BRA officials must commission a study of how the plan would have affected the Brazos River during the extreme drought of 2011 to 2015.
BRA water resources manager Brad Brunett said it is also possible that the permit could be challenged in the next 45 days. But he said the TCEQ decision is a “major milestone.”
“We’re very happy and pleased to get to this point,” he said. “It’s the point in the process we’ve been looking to get to for the last 12 years.”
Among the potential customers for the water are municipal suppliers in the fast-growing Sugar Land and Richmond areas, as well the city of College Station.
The Brazos River Authority’s going rate for water is $72 per acre-foot, meaning the water in question is worth about $7.2 million per year.
The city of Waco, which is not seeking additional water, has supported the permit in recent years after coming to an understanding that the BRA would allow the city to resell its own treated wastewater effluent rather than releasing it into the river.
The plan drew a diverse army of opponents — environmentalists, Dow Chemical Co., and Lake Granbury waterfront homeowners — who questioned how the BRA could squeeze more water out of the basin without affecting other interests.
The BRA is spending between $10 million and $20 million on the permitting effort, Brunett said.
The struggle hasn’t been easy for opponents, who fought the permit in a trial-like contested case hearing before an administrative law judge.
The judge recommended approval to the TCEQ board, which in January gave tentative approval but sent it back to the judge to answer procedural questions.
Hood County Judge Darrell Cockerham said the county, city of Granbury and a Lake Granbury homeowners group have spent nearly $500,000 in legal fees, fighting what they see as a threat to Lake Granbury’s stability.
“We just didn’t want them to take more water out of our lake than they were already taking,” he said.
He said the Granbury area took an economic hit after Lake Granbury’s level dropped during the drought year of 2011, leaving the lake unusable for many lakeside residents.
“A couple of years ago, the appraisals were going down on houses because they were on the lake, but people couldn’t get boats in the water,” he said. “I don’t have a boat, and I don’t live on the lake, but my concern is property values. If property values go down, we’re not going to have enough money to fund the county as it’s been funded before.”
Brunett didn’t dispute that the permit would have some effect on the consistency of water levels in Granbury and other reservoirs.
But he said that under the permit Lake Granbury would be expected to be full or nearly full 75 percent of the time, compared to 80 to 85 percent of the time now.
The systems operation permit proposes to allow the Brazos River Authority to count more water in its existing reservoirs and river channel through several accounting adjustments:
Using surplus river water rather than reservoir releases to serve customers during rainy times, such as this spring.
Recalculating the “firm yield” reliable capacity of the BRA’s 11 reservoirs, using modern-day TCEQ standards.
Counting “return flows” into the river from wastewater treatment plants as salable water.
Under the permit, the Brazos River Authority would have to ensure minimum stream flows at numerous points along the Brazos River and its tributaries, even in a drought.
Taking an additional 100,000 acre-feet out of the Brazos basin each year would have little effect on the river system in a wet year like this one, Brunett said, adding that 20 million to 30 million acre-feet will flow into the Gulf of Mexico this year.
But in the 2011 drought, less than 1 million acre-feet entered the Gulf, he said.
An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land a foot deep with water. Lake Waco has 189,418 acre-feet of drinking water storage.
Brunett said the BRA’s forthcoming study will shed some light on how the recent drought affected the entire basin. So far, the permit has taken the drought of the 1950s as its baseline.
Brunett said the ’50s drought probably had more of an effect on the basin as a whole than the 2011 drought, though it didn’t affect upstream lakes like Possum Kingdom Lake as severely.
“In general,” he said of the new drought study, “I really don’t think it’s going to be a negative impact on our ability to supply additional water from the system.”
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican who represents Waco as well as his home city of Granbury, has opposed the permit before TCEQ commissioners.
In a letter read to commissioners last week, Birdwell reiterated his “belief that this permit would lock up essentially all of the remaining unallocated water and return flows within the basin below Possum Kingdom Reservoir, doing so for the use of one single holder.”
BRA officials have denied that the permit would do that.
Meanwhile, Cockerham, the Hood County judge, said he doubts Granbury-area local governments will appeal the TCEQ decision.
“We lost,” he said. “We have to ask, would we be throwing good money after bad?”
For now, the lake is full, and property values are back up with them, he said.
“They’re buying houses,” he said. “But this has been a really wet year. What’s going to happen when we have four or five dry years and they’re taking more water out?”