Williamson County begins studying area’s future water supply needs

Williamson County begins studying area’s future water supply needsEven though Central Texas saw an abundance of rain in 2015 that pushed the area out of drought status, some Williamson County leaders are saying now is the time to plan for future water sources.

Williamson County has been drought-free since October, according to the Office of the Texas State Climatologist. In 2015 parts of the county experienced an extra 2-12 inches of rain, or 110-125 percent above normal rainwater levels, according to the National Weather Service.

After an influx of rain it can be difficult to get people to focus on water, said Jim Briggs, the general manager for utilities in Georgetown.

“Because it’s wet, it’s more than likely there is less pressure to look at water,” he said. “But the time to deal with water issues and look for water and evaluate options and secure those options is when you don’t need it.”

In December the Williamson County Commissioners Court decided to not take action on a plan that aimed to obtain groundwater from aquifers that lie east of the county and pipe it to storage areas in Williamson County. The plan’s presentation did, however, spur discussions on developing a plan that will determine the sources of water in Williamson County and look at future options that would meet water needs, and Williamson County Judge Dan Gattis said officials will be focusing on water this year.

Williamson County begins studying area’s future water supply needs“I think [water] is a top issue; 2016 will be a major year trying to put a [water] plan together,” Gattis said.

Brazos G plan

Although Williamson County is not a water provider, the county aims to act as a facilitator to determine what the water needs are for the different cities and water users in the region, Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey said.

One resource the county plans to use is the 2016 Brazos G Regional Water Plan, which was developed by the Brazos G region of the Texas Water Development Board. The plan runs from 2020 to 2070 and looks at the current water supply and future water demands in the 36 counties that make up the region. It also lists future options that can be started now, said Gary Newman, who represents Williamson County on the Brazos G board.

The 2016 plan was released in December and sent to TWDB officials, who could review and approve the plan around May, Newman said.

“From the needs and supply, we come up with strategies to meet those needs,” he said. “That’s the most important part of the 50-year study—how we’re trying to meet those needs.”

According to the Brazos G plan, the amount of water needed by water users in its region currently falls below the amount of water that is supplied, though the regional water group is predicting that to change with an increase in population. The county could start to see water issues in 2030, with cities such as Georgetown, Hutto, Leander and Round Rock growing the fastest, Newman said.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau most recently updated in 2014, the population in Williamson County was nearing 500,000. By 2070, Newman estimates the county population to reach 1.5 million, and the Brazos G board predicts the need for water in the county to have risen higher than the available supply.

Water options

The plan lists some possible options to meet those future water needs. One strategy is to utilize water from the Highland Lakes system and pipe it to different areas in the county. Another is to utilize Trinity Aquifer wells to keep Lake Granger wells full during times of drought, Newman said.

The plan also lists looking at the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer in East Texas to see if groundwater is still available, but that option can be tricky since water rights typically exist for river and groundwater supply. However, these options would only meet short-term water needs, Newman said.

Some other alternatives include reducing the amount of water consumption in households, which Newman said would be a key strategy for the county. Other options include building an off-channel reservoir that would act as a storage tank by Lake Whitney in Bosque and Hill counties, which would pump water from Lake Granger into an aquifer during times of heavy rain. Diverting parts of the San Gabriel River into Lake Georgetown would also provide water for both Georgetown and Round Rock.

Some of these options can be expensive, Newman said. Building off-channel reservoirs can cost more than $100 million and can take several years to be permitted and built.

“That’s one reason we do 50-year plans, because some of these [options] may not come to supply water for 30 or 40 years,” he said.

One strategy for Georgetown includes increasing treatment plant capacity so the city can turn more raw water into potable water, Newman said. This is an option that was recently presented to the Georgetown Utility System Advisory Board, Briggs said.

He said the city currently has 43 million gallons of capacity in its three treatment plants, and last year Georgetown Utility Systems utilized 37 million gallons of capacity to treat water. Because of the city’s population growth, and because the city recently absorbed the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District, Briggs said he expects the treatment plants will need to expand over the next few years.

“We don’t need any more right now, but as we incrementally pick up a little bit [of residents] each year we grow, we’re going to need to add plants or add treatment capacity,” he said.

Williamson County plan

Although the Brazos G plan covers the sources of water and lists future water options in Williamson County, Landy Warren, the president of the Lone Star Regional Water Authority in Jarrell, said it can sometimes be difficult to get different cities and municipalities to agree on some of the data presented in the regional plan. Williamson County leaders hope to create a plan for the county with participation from area cities and water municipalities.

Warren said nearly all cities and municipal utility districts currently purchase and distribute water individually. He is hoping the water users can come together and devise a regional plan that would allow each group to share the cost.

“If we could come up with regional plan through bulk purchasing power and splitting of costs, we could provide the amount of water necessary to take care of Williamson County in 10, 15, 20, 40 [or] 50 years,” he said. “We believe a regional plan would be cheaper than a whole bunch of individual plans, but we need a study to determine that.”

Covey agreed that a regional plan is a possible option, but said such a plan is an ongoing subject that will take time, numerous discussions and possibly legislative action to address water needs at a state level. For now, county leaders are focused on meeting with the different entities throughout the county that sell water.

“Looking at what the need is and what the water sources are is key to moving forward, and we’re concerned about the whole county and how future water issues will be addressed,” she said. “I think we’re going to continue having this dialogue, because I think it’s important for the future build-out of the county.”

The Brazos G board is also looking into completing an enhanced study on Williamson County, Newman said. He said he hopes the county and the cities can work together on the countywide plan.

The city of Georgetown will also continue looking at water this year—Briggs said he presented a water demand strategy to the Georgetown Utility System Advisory Board in January, and the same presentation will be given before City Council on Feb. 23.

“We finished 2015 with conversations relative to short-term, intermediate and long-term strategies on what we do on water, and [implementing those conversations] is exactly what we’ve started doing in 2016,” he said.

Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 19 to reflect the correct acronym for the Texas Water Development Board.