Five years ago, Central Texas residents experienced a water crisis caused by another extreme—drought.
“As long as you turn on the tap and water comes out, everything is fine,” said Mike Robinson, Round Rock mayor between 1984 and 1993 and current director of business development with engineering and architecture consulting firm Halff Associates.
Utility managers in each municipality consider a variety of water sources and contingency plans to not only prepare for the worst, but also to plan for population growth.
“The proper planning of a utility is so important so that a city can continue to prosper and grow,” said Michael Thane, utility director for the city of Round Rock. “It’s an important thing that people don’t really think about.”
ROUND ROCK’S WATER SOURCES
In addition to its current water system, the city of Round Rock is planning to spend roughly $46 million toward a $160 million deep-water intake project designed to accommodate the city’s water needs as it grows.
The city of Round Rock currently pumps a majority of its water from lakes with a few groundwater wells to supplement the supply.
“In about 1978, Round Rock was on a groundwater well,” Thane said. “This is when Round Rock was very small, and that well actually went dry.”
Thane said the well, which was located at Mays and Main streets, drew water from the Edwards Aquifer, which is sensitive to droughts.
“In dry times, the [Edwards] Aquifer will drop very quickly,” Thane said.
In response, the city in 1980 entered into an agreement with the Brazos River Authority to purchase water from Lake Georgetown. Thane said water is pumped from Stillhouse Hollow Lake, located near Belton, into Lake Georgetown when its levels dip.
Thane said the city began exploring future sources of water around 2005 to accommodate the growing population. Round Rock decided to enter into a partnership with Cedar Park to purchase water from Lake Travis. Leander later joined the agreement, and the cities formed the Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority.
Round Rock currently uses roughly 20 million gallons per day of water. Once that average rises to just over 22 million gallons per day, the city will open a valve to begin pumping in water from Lake Travis.
“We thought we would be taking that Lake Travis water in 2014,” Thane said. The delay, he said, was due to public knowledge about conservation and the city’s tiered water rates. “All of those factors have reduced the amount of water we are using every day in the city, so instead of taking that water in 2014 like we thought, we are in 2019, and we are still two or three years [out] before we take it.”
Round Rock also operates five groundwater wells, which pull water from the Edwards Aquifer. The wells have the capacity to pull between 8 million and 10 million gallons per day, but because of the sensitivity of the aquifer Round Rock only pulls roughly 2 million gallons per day from the ground, Thane said.
According to data from the Texas Water Development Board, Round Rock’s water demand will exceed its existing supply by 2030. By 2050, the city’s demand would be more than double its current supply.
Robinson said he believes the city’s answer may be found to the east in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer.
The Carrizo-Wilcox stretches across Texas from the Louisiana border to the border of Mexico and is composed largely of sand, which stores freshwater, according to TWDB. The underground structure of the aquifer leaves it less susceptible to evaporation and better insulated against drought. Robinson said he believes the aquifer could provide a more dependable water source.
Thane said pumping water from the aquifer was one of several options explored in 2005.
“We ran the numbers, and the power it would cost of pumping [water] uphill 50 miles from the Carrizo-Wilcox [Aquifer] was expensive,” Thane said. “Partnering with these other cities to pump out of Lake Travis was more economical for the city.”
Robinson said he hopes Round Rock will revisit the option and re-evaluate the cost of pumping from the Carrizo-Wilcox.
“The way our population is growing, I’m concerned that surface water is not the answer,” Robinson said.
Longtime area residents may remember the drought of 2010-14, during which Lake Travis hit a low of 618.56 feet mean sea level, or from the Earth’s average sea level, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority, which controls the lake. When full, Lake Travis sits at 681.72 feet msl.
Thane said the Lake Travis floating barge currently utilized by Round Rock, Cedar Park and Leander does not serve as drought protection, but the partners have another plan in the works.
The BCRUA is beginning final design work on what is known as the Phase 2 Deep Water Intake pump at Lake Travis. The pump will be 560 feet msl in Lake Travis and will be able to pump water to the three cities even when the lake level drops, according to Thane.
The project is expected to break ground in 2021 or 2022 and be complete in 2026, according to the BCRUA.
Round Rock will be responsible for 29 percent of the $160 million project, Thane said. The city expects to issue long-term debt to fund the project.
The city’s current water sources and plans in place should carry Round Rock to its ultimate build-out of 250,000 residents, according to Thane.
PFLUGERVILLE PLANS FOR GROWTH
As the city of Pflugerville experiences growth in both its residential population and commercial development, the city finds itself in the position of planning for the future.
Pflugerville currently pumps the majority of its water from the Colorado River into Lake Pflugerville. The city has used the lake since 2006 as a detention basin from which it pumps water into a treatment facility. Previous to the existence of Lake Pflugerville, the city pumped all of its water from the ground, according to Wylie Webb, utility superintendent for the city of Pflugerville.
The city still operates two groundwater wells, which can pump a combined 4.8 million gallons per day from the Edwards Aquifer.
Among all of the sources, Pflugerville has the capacity to treat and produce between 23 million and 25 million gallons of water per day, according to Brian McDougal, interim public works director for the city of Pflugerville.
“If we are going to have a really big water day, it’s going to be in August, and we will probably treat 13 million gallons per day. ...Since we can produce 23 [million] to 25 million gallons per day we are still at less than half of what our plant can produce,” McDougal said. “But we are forecasting for the next 30 years.”
McDougal said the city is in the process of creating a water and sewer master plan to determine what the city’s build-out capacity will be and identify potential future sources of water. The city is about six months into the master plan process, which typically takes about two years, McDougal said.
McDougal and Wylie said Lake Pflugerville helps to protect the city from the potential danger to drinking water brought on by flooding.
When October brought the heavy rains that caused Austin to be placed under a boil water advisory, McDougal said Webb and his staff determined that there was enough water in Lake Pflugerville to turn off the pumps from the Colorado River, preventing flood water from entering the system.
“Depending on how much water we are using, we have a couple of month’s worth of storage in the lake,” McDougal said. “It insulates us against issues with the river water for a time, and the wells supplement that supply.”
Alternatively, Webb said he believes the city’s surface water sources are more dependable than those below the ground in times of extreme heat.
Wylie said the LCRA uses storage in the Highland Lakes to maintain the water level in the Colorado River.
“They have done tons of research to ensure that they always have enough water,” Webb said. “If the lake levels do go low, they have key points where they start having water restrictions.”
The city enforces voluntary watering restrictions during the fall and winter and mandatory restrictions during the spring and summer to guide residents in an effort to conserve water.
HUTTO’S WELL SYSTEM
In 2017 the city of Hutto purchased its own groundwater well system for $59 million.
The city owns 11 wells—with capacity for four more—which pump water from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer.
Hutto operates a 26-mile line to bring the water into the city, according to City Manager Odis Jones. It has the capacity to generate roughly 5 million gallons per day.
The city also has a contract with the city of Jonah for another million gallons per day and another with Taylor for 500,000 gallons per day, bringing the city’s total combined capacity to 6.5 million gallons per day. On an average day, Hutto currently uses 1.5 million gallons per day, Jones said.
“At full build-out we will have the capacity for 8 million gallons per day,” Jones said.
Jones said he has had discussions about selling water to other cities when they are in need.
“Folks in the state know that if you need water, go talk to Hutto because they have a lot of it,” Jones said. “It’s liquid gold, and you have to have it.”