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Growth and drought strain water supply

Severe drought in Central Texas

Severe drought and hot weather have led to restrictions on both groundwater and lake water in the Highland Lakes. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the final one in a series titled “Small Towns, Big Changes” that launched in the August 2023 issue of The Picayune Magazine. The series delves into the facts and figures behind the rapid development in the Highland Lakes and what it means for the people who call this region home, whether newcomers or longtime locals.

Continued growth in the Highland Lakes is putting a strain on water supplies above and below ground, while the lack of a wastewater treatment facility is holding back expansion in at least one city. Another municipality is spending millions of dollars to upgrade its aging wastewater plant as developers rapidly add to the housing stock. 

“Growth is inevitable,” said Marble Falls Mayor Dave Rhodes. “We have some authority or ability to manage not the growth, but the kind of growth. That’s really what our charge is: to make sure the growth that’s happening is compatible with the city, the culture, and, obviously, from an infrastructure standpoint, that we’re able to service it.”

Marble Falls processed 2.4 million to 2.6 million gallons of water per day this summer but dropped to around 2.1 million gallons a day in August after the Lower Colorado River Authority implemented Stage 2 water restrictions. 

“I’m shooting for 2 (million gallons per day), or even south,” Rhodes said. “We’re getting there.” 

The city is committed to expanding its system’s capacity to accommodate growth south of town in subdivisions such as Thunder Rock, Gregg Ranch, and Legacy Crossing, Rhodes said.

Over the past year, Marble Falls has proposed designating $225,000 in its preliminary budget to purchase an additional 4,000 acre-feet of lake water from the LCRA for reserves. 

“That gives us more than double the current capacity that we have from LCRA,” Rhodes said. 

Officials are also in the process of purchasing a $7 million groundwater system that could pump 720,000 gallons per day, roughly half of what the city currently treats from Lake Marble Falls.

“It would cost us well north of three times that to build a plant of similar capacity, so it’s a bargain,” Rhodes said.

Growth has also forced Marble Falls to move forward with building a new wastewater treatment plant. It was deemed necessary after the city’s current 1.5-million-gallon-per-day plant eclipsed 75 percent capacity for three straight months in 2020, triggering a threshold set by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“The plant was built in 1953,” Rhodes said. “We’ve been Band-Aid’ing it and bubble-gumming it together for a very long time.”

The new plant will have a capacity of 3 million gallons per day and the capability of upgrading to 4.5 million gallons per day. It will use direct potable reuse technology that will allow the city to recycle effluent water into drinking water. Engineers estimate the process will save hundreds of gallons of water each day.

“One of the things I focus on is recurring costs,” Rhodes said. “The new technologies are far superior. They allow the plant to be far more efficient on a recurring cost basis.”

A GROWTH BLOCKAGE

In neighboring Granite Shoals, a lack of infrastructure has impacted the city’s ability to grow.

“The main difference between Marble Falls and Granite Shoals is Marble Falls has sales (tax) revenue from businesses and hotels and restaurants,” said Granite Shoals Utility Superintendent Josh Hisey. “We don’t have that capacity, mainly because if you have a business, you have to get a lot of land in order for your septic field to be viable. That comes at a high price, coming off of these ranch lands. The bigger the business, the bigger the leach field you have to have.”

Private wastewater company Aqua Texas handles a small portion of the city’s residential sewage. The majority of residents rely on septic systems.

“Once you step off from the septic systems, you can bring in more businesses, more hotels, more restaurants, more condos, and more apartments,” Hisey said.

He believes that even if the city hypothetically moved forward with a new plant tomorrow, it would take an exceptionally long time for the system to come online.

“You’re looking at over a decade of work in order to incorporate all the infrastructure that has to go into a wastewater plant,” he said. “It’s not just the plant and the piping. You have to have a place to put the effluent water.”

POSITIVE GAINS

Across Lake LBJ in Cottonwood Shores, officials have worked diligently over the past few years to modernize the city’s water system. 

“All of our water lines, except for a few mains, were undersized,” said City Administrator J.C. Hughes. “They were 2-inch, 1-inch (wide lines). In addition to that, they were behind the houses, which doesn’t lend itself to access for repairs.”

Cottonwood Shores decided to prioritize upgrading its water system to satisfy developer demand and ensure the city didn’t repeat the troubles seen during the2021 freeze, which rocked the community of 1,500 residents as pipes froze and busted across the municipality.

“We had a hard time providing water to existing customers,” Hughes said.  “(Developers) were a little reluctant to invest a lot of money in town (because of the inadequate water lines).” 

Following millions of dollars of improvements, Hughes believes the city’s infrastructure is healthier than ever before.

“We’ve greatly improved the water pressure and volumes just in the last three years,” he said.

The infrastructure gains have resulted in about 130 new homes in Cottonwood Shores since 2020. 

“We’ve gone from one extreme to the other extreme,” Hughes said. “We’re not hearing, ‘How are you going to get suitable water to my house?’ anymore.”

The city recently added a fifth lift station to its wastewater system. Cottonwood Shores pumps its effluent to Horseshoe Bay for treatment.

As for continued growth in the city on two lakes, Hughes said the challenge is to control it moving forward. 

“You have to have managed growth,” he said. “We feel like we have managed growth now that we’ve made improvements to our water system.”

BELOW GROUND

Communities that rely on groundwater are also facing restrictions and drying wells. The Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District, which regulates groundwater in Burnet County, has begun cracking down on developments and municipalities that are using more water than contracted. 

Six permitted groundwater users that went over their allotment were called before the district’s Board of Directors for a show-cause hearing in August. Most signed agreed orders that require them to report their monthly usage and prove they can remain within their permits for the next 12 months while the area continues to struggle with the impacts from a long-term drought and a summer-long heatwave.

nathan@thepicayune.com

2 thoughts on “Growth and drought strain water supply

  1. You can purchase all the water you want – but there is no guarantee it will be there. Because of heat and drought, the lakes are no longer recharging as they used to, and our aquifers are shrinking. We have to stop thinking there is an endless supply of water, and start figuring out how to use less of it. More water contracts and more development will only make things worse. It’s time to start talking about reducing consumption, increasing conservation and finding innovative ways to recharge our lakes and aquifers.

    1. KB, You absolutely correct. The entire region is going to be in serious trouble in the near future. There are big money investors buy land in the region solely for the water rights that come with the land. Then you have people like Gregory Garland who wants to dam the llano river for a private lake…

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