First phase of three-city water project goes live

Cedar Park receives water during critical shortage

Three Williamson County communities successfully secured additional water in late June when the first phase of the Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority project went live.

The BCRUA project provides water from Lake Travis to Cedar Park, Leander and Round Rock following a deal first agreed upon in 2007. The $171 million bond-funded first phase was built on schedule and more than $40 million under budget, Project Manager Mike Thuss said.

Cedar Park began taking water June 27, and Leander did the same one day later. It won't be until at least 2014 that Round Rock receives any water, Thuss said. Both Cedar Park and Leander city officials always considered it a priority to finish by June, Thuss said.

"Cedar Park had said all along they really wanted it finished by now so they could have water for their ratepayers," Thuss said. "Leander has a similar issue, but I don't think that was as critical as Cedar Park's for this immediate demand season."

The expanded water service provides the two growing cities a daily boost up to 22 million gallons of water at the most critical time of year, he said. After Round Rock's service goes live, Phase I can eventually provide up to 42 million gallons per day from Lake Travis to the three cities.

Growing demand dictates need

U.S. census data places Williamson County among the top 10 fastest-growing counties in the nation. In fact, Round Rock is the second-fastest growing large U.S. city, while Cedar Park and Leander's populations have respectively doubled and tripled the past decade.

The state's water master planning process places an immediate emphasis on finding more water for this region, said Dan Hardin, water resources planning director for the Texas Water Development Board, which takes into account economic and social factors as well as population patterns and access to water before approving bonded projects.

Hardin, who oversaw the BCRUA $309.75 million request for bond funding in 2007, said faster-than-anticipated growth has made it essential that Leander and Round Rock secure long-term alternate water sources. The need in Cedar Park, however, is even more urgent.

"Cedar Park, in particular, would not have sufficient water supplies in drought conditions right now," Hardin said. "Some areas take longer for areas of growth to catch up. For Cedar Park, [the need] is immediate."

Even under ideal conditions, Cedar Park's existing water resources would last only two more years, Councilman Mitch Fuller said. Fortunately for the city, the BCRUA first phase should extend the city's water supply five to seven years, he said.

"The economic impact is extraordinary," he said. "Without this water, it could essentially impact developed properties and preclude any growth for undeveloped properties."

Fuller, who twice served as BCRUA president, said economic hardships have drastically changed the tone of this project since it first started. Appraisal data shows the rate of residential growth, while still increasing, has substantially leveled off in each involved city since the housing bubble burst in 2008.

The decrease in development has been particularly hard on Leander, which is paying off debt service on the project through existing customers' water bills. Although water rates increased to compensate for the debt, the cost of taking on such an expensive water infrastructure project alone would have been far more expensive, Leander Mayor Chris Fielder said.

"If we didn't have water availability, we wouldn't get the growth," said Fielder, the incoming BCRUA president.

The number of new single-family structures in Leander continues to grow but at a slower rate, according to the Travis and Williamson central appraisal districts. Similar slowdowns in growth were also seen in Cedar Park and Round Rock from 2007–2011.

But with more open land available for development in Leander than the other two communities, Fielder said he expects the project's financial burden to level out in the coming years.

"Our growth will help us catch up to rates," he said. "The big thing now is to maintain growth so we don't move backwards."

System helps overcome obstacles

Drought conditions have also added to the sense of urgency to create a deep-water intake system that can draw water from the depths of Lake Travis where existing infrastructure fails to reach. In the meantime, a temporary, floating intake structure has been created to sift water through a new intake line that travels along Trails End Road.

Water is then processed in a new regional treatment plant at New Hope Drive in Cedar Park. From there it is dispersed to Cedar Park and Leander—and as late as 2016 to Round Rock. In the meantime, Round Rock will continue relying on its primary water source at Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir, Councilman George White said.

White, the outgoing BCRUA president, said Stillhouse Hollow can adequately sustain Round Rock another four to five years.

"We will be drawing from [Lake Travis] a little later, but it didn't make sense for us to not get involved in this project," White said. "There is a sense of urgency for making sure water is available."

Round Rock's population is expected to double in the next 20 years to more than 200,000, White said, making it essential the city secure enough water to help develop its northeast quadrant. Water is also necessary for attracting potential new industries, he said.

Two project phases remain

The BCRUA's second phase calls for building a $100 million permanent deep-water intake structure that will provide up to 67 million gallons of capacity, White said. The final $29 million phase further expands the operation to create 106 million gallons per day of total capacity, he said.

"The project is the first of its kind in Central Texas where three municipalities have come together for future generations," White said. "It's essential. Without it, I don't see [Round Rock] being able to continue to grow."

There is approximately $168 million left in bonding capacity for the rest of the project.

But the second phase is at least three years away from reality, Fuller said. The BCRUA board on June 20 approved an environmental impact study for the second phase construction, but not without some protests from city officials in Volente, where a portion of the project is scheduled to be built.

Any objections aside, Fuller said it will be up to the three cities involved to come up with the best affordable option to ensure Phase II advances.

"There's a historic inevitability at getting water from Lake Travis," he said. "It was built for flood control and water supply."

So far, the partnership has worked out well despite some very in-depth discussions, White said. In the end, the board has always voted unanimously, he said.

"There's not an itch to scratch, but there will be, and we need to be ready with a solution," White said.

By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.


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