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WHY WATER ISN’T FREE FOR ALL

Let’s face it; opening a water bill in the summer can be an unpleasant experience. When the days turn hot, we Texans use more water at our businesses and homes, to keep our lawns and gardens alive or simply to drink to stay hydrated on a scorching afternoon. The cost of all that water can add up.

One may wonder why we have to pay for water when there is so much of it about. Even if a drought causes local or regional shortages, more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, and there is more waiting underground, right?

Our planet is indeed rich with water, but much of it is not located where it can be easily used to meet people’s needs. First, a water source must be found, then the water must be transported, stored and treated so we can use it. Those steps cost money and some of that expense is passed on to the consumer.

The Brazos River Authority has built three reservoirs to store water for public consumption: Possum Kingdom, Granbury and Limestone. Along with eight federal reservoirs , these three provide water to meet a wide-range of needs across the Brazos basin. However, because of a growing population and demand for water in the Houston and Gulf Coast region, the BRA is planning to build a new reservoir in the area: Allens Creek. This 9,500-acre lake is projected to supply about 99,650 acre-feet of water, or more than 32 billion gallons.

But building such a reservoir also takes time and money. The BRA, with our city of Houston project partner, has been developing this reservoir for decades, and it will likely be several years more before it is completed. An early step in creating a reservoir is conducting environmental, engineering, archeological and other studies as well as obtaining permits for the project. According to a state report compiled in 1997, the permitting process would cost about $2.88 million for Allens Creek.

Another expense would be mitigating any potential issues caused to wildlife and other factors as a result of the lake being built. A 2001 engineering firm report put that cost at about $8.4 million. Building the dam structure at Allens Creek would cost about $46.29 million, and related operations and maintenance would add another $1.64 million. A pump station to pull water from the reservoir for use would cost about $46.29 million. A system of pipes to carry that water would take an additional $48.97 million.

Adding these and other miscellaneous expenses, to build Allens Creek would cost roughly $200 million. One would have to remember that those numbers were based on the dollar’s value at the time the reports were conducted, and accounting for inflation would add additional cost.

A reservoir’s expense does not end once it’s built. Staff is needed for lake operations, maintenance and to oversee safety and law enforcement.

Getting water from these reservoirs to the people, businesses and communities that need it also comes with a price tag. Sometimes a short term expense is incurred for a project that is expected to meet future needs and pay for itself in the long run. Such is the case with the BRA’s West Central Brazos Water Distribution System.

In 2002, the Brazos River Authority acquired about 80 miles of pipeline that stretched from west of Possum Kingdom Lake across a region that includes communities that have been especially hard-hit by drought. This system of pipelines will help these areas have access to water that is in short supply during these dry times. These pipelines require regular maintenance that is estimated to cost about $583,000 in the coming year. During that same period, current customers will pay about $411,000 for water through the pipeline in the coming year.

The West Central Brazos pipeline was purchased by the BRA; but what would it cost to build a new pipeline to deliver water to other areas with low water resources? Estimates note pipeline construction costs more than $1 million per mile.

Exploring for new sources of water to meet future needs of a growing population also takes funding. One area that is being explored by some is the possibility of treating salt water from the Gulf of Mexico so it can be fit for human consumption or other uses. Though there is a seemingly endless supply of such water, in the past the expense of operating such coastal desalinization plants for large-scale water supply made them cost prohibitive. More recent technological advances have made desalinization a more reasonable option, but such a system would still have added costs above those for a standard water treatment plant.

For instance, according to the Texas Water Development Board, a 2010 report estimated building a plant that would process about 2.5 million gallons a day (mgd) would cost about $32 million. Building a 100 mgd plant would cost about $658 million. In addition, removing the high salt concentrations from the water would cost about four to six dollars per 1,000 gallons. That is in addition to the cost of standard water treatment.

So, as you can see, while there is plentiful water on this planet, it is not always conveniently located or fit for consumption. Getting water to people in the Brazos basin takes money, but it is well worth the cost to continue to meet the needs of a growing population.