The Supply System

Providing the water supply and infrastructure for the State of Texas is an immense undertaking.   It is an area 269,000 square miles in size.  The climate in much of the state is dry, or erratic, or unforgiving, or all three at once.  Despite this, the infrastructure supports over 26 million people, the second largest population in the country, which grows by about 430,000 a year.1

• Texas’ municipal water utilities have roughly 85,000 miles of mains and pipelines.2  About 30% of the state’s water in 2010 was used for residential, commercial, and urban-located industrial customers.3   In 2005, Texas water utilities provided 137 gallons of water per person per day for domestic consumption.  Only 5% of the U.S. population used more, mostly in desert states like Arizona and Nevada.4

• About 8% of Texas’ water in 2010 was used for manufacturing.  Oil refining and chemical processing are among the most water-intensive industries known.  Texas has 30% of all the oil refining capacity in the country, and 17% of all U.S. plastic manufacturing sales comes from the state.5,6

An additional 2% of Texas water in 2010 was used for mining, including hydrocarbon extraction.  Texas produces the largest share of domestic hydrocarbons of any U.S. state, 31% of oil and 29% of natural gas in 2012.7  While oil production has plummeted since its peak in 1972, Texas gas production has shot up in recent years with the advent of fracturing technology.

• Agriculture used 57% of the state’s total water in 2010; 9% of Texas’ economic activity was associated with food or fiber in 2010, including the food to provide for about 59 million people.8,9 Texas has 21.5 million acres of producing cropland, about a quarter of which is irrigated.10  Only five (Midwestern) states (with kinder climates) have more cropland.  Texas out-produces all other states in beef production, with 16% being far and away the highest share.11

• The state consumed 10% of the country’s electricity in 2011, with 88% of it generated from power plants dependent on water for steam and cooling.12  Water is particularly critical when generating for summer peak demand, which usually coincides with the driest time of the year.

The ability to provide for all these needs was built pipeline-by-pipeline, dam-by-dam, well-by-well, to the point that it looks vast and powerful to those that view it from a distance.  To those that view it up close though, it can appear quite fragile.

On the Surface

Just over half (52%) of the state’s water supplies in 2010 was made up of surface water, mainly lakes, and rivers that have become de facto conveyance systems from lakes (since river water could not provide reliable capacity to the state’s large population for any long period of time).13  In 2010, surface water provided for 2/3 of municipal consumption, 80% of industrial consumption, and 90% of power plant consumption.14

Texas has 188 lakes more than 5,000 acre-feet in capacity covering a collective area of about 2,542 square miles, about 150% larger than the land area of Austin and the rest of Travis County.15  However, all but one of these lakes are really reservoirs built for water supply, flood control, hydroelectricity, and recreation.  Only part of one lake (Caddo) is natural.

There is no other state in the country that has this much land covered by reservoirs.  Only California has more water stored in reservoirs (because its lakes are deeper than Texas).16  But then California has a population almost 50% greater.

Texas’ surface water infrastructure is awash in political irony.  About half of the state’s reservoir capacity was funded with federal money, as well as a considerable amount of its municipal water and wastewater utility infrastructure.17  Since 1988,  $9.8 billion (2013  dollars) of  federally subsidized loans has been borrowed by the state’s water utilities.18  In a state that prides itself on its independence, and where many of its politicians decry big federal government and its profligate spending, much of the state’s population and industry would probably not exist, or exist in their current form, without this assistance.

About half of these 188 lakes, representing 75% of their collective volume, came online after the scorching “drought of [historical] record” that took place between 1950 and 1956.19  The state, with federal assistance, sought to ensure supplies for a drought of similar severity, as well as provide for growth.

You might say that Texas accomplished this task too well.  Between 1958 and 2001, most available sites were utilized, and there are very few good sites left to build new lakes.  Only 26 new reservoirs are proposed in the new (2012) Texas Water Plan, and will only add about 1.5-1.6 million acre-feet (19%) to the state’s current surface water supplies.20  Most have significant controversy roiling around them.

They also have a significant financial price – over $12 billion (2008 dollars) for construction alone, before annual costs of operation, maintenance, and the astounding amount of electricity that some of these projects will need to pump water uphill to the west.

If this is not enough to stymie surface water increases, there is the phenomenon of silt.  All water bodies, natural and man-made, are subject to “siltation,” where erosion from soil in a river’s drainage basin is swept into the river by rainfall.  Before Texas was settled, “rafts” of eroded soil and debris (such as tree limbs) blocked river flows, particularly at their mouths in the Gulf of Mexico.

In dam design, great care must be taken to mitigate silt.  A poorly designed structure can literally be useless in a decade.  While short life spans have not afflicted reservoirs in Texas, silt has caused noticeable damage to the storage capability of some of them.  Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, the two major reservoirs for Central Texas’ water supply, have lost 11% and 1.5% of their original capacity, respectively, since they were built in the late 1930s and early 40s.21  Lake Steinhagen in East Texas has lost 35% of its volume.22  By one estimate, Texas lakes have lost an average of 14% of their storage capacity, and this will continue to get worse as they age.23

The most recent state water plan predicts a 243,000 acre-foot, 2%, loss due to silt between now and 2060 – the equivalent of 791,000 single-family homes at Austin’s average household consumption.24  Reservoirs can have the silt excavated and restore their original capacity through dredging.  However, industrial dredging on this scale is quite expensive.  Though costs are specific to each project, they are typically several times the cost of building a new reservoir.  One of the main drivers of these high costs is the high price of oil to operate the petroleum-dependent marine and dredging equipment required for this task.

To give an example of the high cost of dredging, a study for restoring Lake Buchanan in 1990, updated to 2009 dollars, was $34 to $70 per thousand gallons (before interest).25  As a benchmark comparison, water provided by the Lower Colorado River Authority costs about 50¢ per thousand gallons.


If the problems with maintaining adequate surface water supplies seem formidable, groundwater is an even greater challenge.  It provided about 48% of the state’s water supplies in 2010.26  In that year, about 75% of groundwater consumption was for agriculture, though about 1/3 of municipal supplies also came from this source.

About 3/4 of the state’s area has aquifers beneath it, tapped by 800,000 to 1,000,000 wells.27  Over 125,000 of them are in the Texas Panhandle region, which is depleting its groundwater at an alarming rate.28  Many of the area’s water planners and farmers are literally expecting a conversion to dryland farming, or elimination of agriculture altogether.

Unlike the vast reservoir infrastructure in Texas, most groundwater systems were not directly subsidized by the federal government.  However, there was and is considerable indirect federal assistance in the form of crop supports.  There is even a tax deduction that allows farmers to “depreciate” an aquifer they draw water from if the water has limited recharge, such as the Ogallala in the Panhandle.

Between 1995 and 2011, farmers in Texas counties over the Ogallala received over $9.8 billion (nominal dollars) in federal food crop supports, much of which would not be there to support without using the depleting aquifer.29 In the year 2011, federal subsidies amounted to over $600 million.  Though not all of these crops were irrigated, the majority of them were. In 2010, 66% of cotton harvest, 99% of corn harvest, and 46% of wheat harvest in most High Plains counties overlying the Ogallala were irrigated.30

Due to the decline of this aquifer, as well as land subsidence caused by drawdown of the Gulf Coast Aquifer, groundwater use in Texas is expected to fall 30% by 2060.31  But in sharp contrast to surface water, which is accountable to regulation, groundwater is, to a great degree, less restricted by government oversight.

Birthright…or Mirage

Texas water ownership is partially grounded in historic rights.  However, as the state gets more crowded, these entitlements become more tenuous.

Surface water is ultimately controlled by the state, and state government has generally apportioned it by who claimed it first.  The policy is informally called “first in line, first in right.”  Historically, these priority rights have usually gone to agricultural interests.  This is changing, however, and will likely change further as farmers compete more and more with cities.

In some river basins, if all the water that was allocated to the water permit holders were used, the rivers would never reach the sea during times of drought.32  Priority water rights in the Rio Grande River have already been terminated.  It is likely that other rivers will follow this trend.

For groundwater, the situation of historic rights is also uncertain.  Since the early 20th century, Texas has governed groundwater through the “right of capture.”  Groundwater under a landowner’s area is considered their property if they decide to use it.  However, as the state has grown, it has given the right to regulate these resources to locally-elected groundwater conservation districts.  Since 1951, 96 of them have been authorized in the state, as well as 2 subsidence districts in the Houston area that regulate water to prevent the ground from sinking as water is pumped from beneath it.  The largest of these contains all or part of 13 counties.  The smallest contains parts of only one county.

Some of these conservation districts have chosen to allocate their water according to the “first in line” philosophy, most notably the Edwards Aquifer Authority that manages the part of the Edwards that supplies San Antonio.  Recent court decisions have stunned water professionals in Texas, most notably the Day decision, threatening to upend a regulatory system that had been successfully established in that region.

Burrell Day (one of the two plaintiffs) was a farmer who purchased acreage after the conservation district had been established.  He applied for a water use permit, but was granted very little water because he had no history of prior use.  Originally filed in 1994, the case went on so long that Day actually died in 2009.  The courts generally went against his challenge up until the Texas Supreme Court.  In early 2012, it ruled that the Edwards Aquifer Authority had the right to regulate, but not on grounds of historical use.

This could present staggering complications to the established permit holders, who may lose water rights they considered settled when new agricultural users claim their share.  Water previously awarded on historic use may instead be granted on the size of land with water under it.  The City of San Antonio, which had purchased water rights from agricultural permit holders, could find its purchases rendered meaningless or at least partially invalid.

Then again, the Day decision only allowed its plaintiffs to file a court case to be reimbursed for alleged economic damages.  Winning these damages will require proof of harm, which will not be that easy.  And it might be expensive, because conservation districts will be awarded court costs if these challenges lose.  So no one knows exactly what Day will mean to the future.  However, it left many hanging questions as to how the High Court of Texas will rule in the future – perhaps more questions than it answered.

Leaking Cities

In addition to the contests over water between cities, states, countries, and fish, cities have to battle their own delivery systems.  All municipal systems have at least some degree of leakage.  In many cities, it is pronounced.

From the very limited data that exists for 2010, Texas cities with over 100,000 people collectively managed about 44,000 miles of water mains.33  Water losses in these cities averaged 13% of total supply, amounting to 88 billion gallons, or 23 gallons per capita per day, and cost ratepayers $139 million.34  (Austin was lower than average, at 8%.)35  A report from the 1990s estimated that Texas water utilities lost 20% of their water.36

While preventing leaks from any water supply source is important, municipal water losses are particularly expensive and critical.  This raw-water supply is upgraded with energy-intensive water treatment technology to render it safe for domestic use.

And the leaks are only going to get worse.  The majority of water mains across Texas and the entire country are reaching the end of their useful life.  The American Water Works Association, a highly regarded professional organization for water utility professionals, has deemed the coming decades “the Replacement Era,” as massive expenditures will need to be made.37  A recent estimate is that about a trillion dollars (2010 dollars) would need to be spent between 2011 and 2050 to replace this worn infrastructure.38

An estimate in a study done specifically on the Austin Water Utility in 2000 showed that cost per household to replace and repair infrastructure in 2030 will rise over 200% from their level in 2012, an increase of over $100 per household (2000 dollars).39  There has been no overall determination of the cost to Texas water utilities.

Another issue concerning water pipeline repair and replacement is the toxicity of the pipe itself.  At least two types of pipe materials represent potentially dangerous environmental and health effects.

Of  the 980,000 miles of pipelines in the U.S. in 2002, about 15% were made from Asbestos Concrete and 17% were manufactured from Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).40  Asbestos Concrete is no longer manufactured because of health and liability concerns.  Care must be taken to prevent severe lung damage in workers undertaking removal work.

PVC is not generally considered a hazard to workers installing it or consumers at the delivery point.  However, the material itself is hazardous to manufacture.  PVC is in the same chemical family as DDT, PCB, and dioxin.  Its production creates considerable air and water pollution, as well as toxic waste.  Despite this, PVC becomes a larger part of the water pipeline infrastructure every year.



1 Average for 2000-2011 derived from Texas State Library and Archives Commission, “United States and Texas Populations 1850-2012.”

2 American Water Works Association, Distribution System Inventory, Integrity and Water Quality, Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, January 2007, p. 9.  About 1,031,000 miles of water mains (including 980,000 miles in 2002 + 5,100 miles added each year between 2002-2012) adjusted for percent of U.S. population in Texas.

3 Note 2, INTRODUCTION, for 2010.

4 Kenny, J.F., et. al., Estimated use of water in the United States in 2005, U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1344, p. 20.

5 US DOE, EIA, “Refinery Capacity By U.S., PAD District and State,” Release Date: June 22, 2012.  Online:, accessed 7/9/13.

6 Society for the Plastics Industry, “Plastics in Texas,” 2010.

7 Crude oil production from U.S. DOE, EIA,  “Crude Oil Production,” Data, Petroleum and Other Liquids.”  Online:, accessed 7/9/13.

Natural gas production from U.S. DOE, EIA,  “Natural Gas Gross Withdrawals and Production,” Data, Natural Gas.  Online:, accessed 7/9/13.

8 Texas A&M Agrilife Research Extension, The Food and Fiber System and Production Agriculture’s Contributions to the Texas Economy, College Station, TX, November 2012.

9 People fed by Texas derived from the following sources:

Crops and Animals produced in 2010: USDA, NASS, “Data and Statistics.” Online:

Conversion of Units to pounds: USDA, NASS, Agricultural Statistics 2012, Washington, DC, 2012, Introduction.

Calories per pound: USDA, National Agricultural Library, “National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 25.”  Online at

Calories per person: Average per capita calories per day from “Food Balance Sheets” for World population (2009), “UN Faostat database.”  Online:

Edible percentage of beef (41%) from Nold, Roise, “How Much Meat Can You Expect From a Fed Steer?” South Dakota State University, January 2, 2012.

Retail weight for chicken produced in Texas and edible percentage (60%): Dave Harvey, Economist, USDA Economic Research Service, February 1 and July 10, 2013.

Conversion of sugarcane to processed sugar:, Baucum, L.E. and R. W. Rice, “An Overview of Florida Sugarcane,” University of Florida IFAS Extension.  Online at

Conversion of pecans to pounds assumed to be 42.5%: from National Pecan Shellers Association, “From Shelling to Storing.”  Online:

10 Acreage from USDA, Economic Research Service, “Overview,” Major Land Uses.  Online:

Percent of irrigated farmland from Texas A&M AgriLife Research Extension, “Status and Trends of Irrigated Agriculture in Texas,” TWRI EM-115, 2012, p. 2.

11. Note 9 this section, USDA, NASS.

12 National generation percentage from US DOE, EIA, “Retail Sales of Electricity by State by Sector by Provider, 1990-2011.”

Texas generation percentage from US DOE, EIA, Form 923, 2011, Table 2.


14 Ibid.

15 Texas Water Development Board, (TWDB), 2012 State Water Plan, Chapter 5, p. 159.  Surface area generally from Texas Parks and Wildlife, “Texas Freshwater Lakes.” Other sources include Texas Almanac, “Lakes and Reservoirs,” Environment and The State of Texas Handbook Online.

16 Capacity from U.S. Geological Survey, Summary of Selected Characteristics of Large Reservoirs in the United States and Puerto Rico, 1988, Denver, CO: USGS, 1990, p. 10.

17 Comparison of 2010 firm yield of Texas reservoirs compared to federally funded lakes.  Firm yield from 2012 State Water Plan, Appendix C.

18 Data for State Revolving Loan Fund provided by Merry Klonower, Director of Communications and Web Administration, TWDB, March 18, 2013.

19 From 2012 State Water Plan, Appendix C.

20 TWDB, 2012 State Water Plan, Appendix A.2

21 TWDB, Survey of Lake Buchanan, March-April 2006 Survey, August 2007, PDF p. 4.

TWDB, Volumetric and Sedimentation Survey of Lake Travis, April – July 2008 Survey, May 2009, PDF page 3.

22 Alan Plummer Associates, Inc., Dredging vs. New Reservoirs, Austin, TX: TWDB, December 2005, p. 1-6.

23 Ibid., p. 1-2.

24 Silt loss from TWDB, 2012 State Water Plan, Chapter 5, p. 161. Austin homes average 100,000 gallons per year.   

25 CH2M Hill, Water Supply Resource Plan: Water Supply Option Analysis, Austin, TX: Lower Colorado River Authority, July 13, 2009, p. 112.


27 The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Water Well Report Viewer includes over 800,000 wells.  Online:

TWDB estimates about 1 million wells have been drilled, and has information on over 135,000.  Online:

28 Interviews with regional groundwater conservation districts.

29 Environmental Working Group, 2012 Farm Subsidy Database.  (Subsidies for 37 counties in the Ogallala region tabulated.  Cotton subsides removed from this estimate.)  Online:

30 USDA, NASS, Texas Field Office, County Estimates by Commodity.  Online: This uses 2010 as the benchmark year.

31 TWDB, 2012 State Water Plan, Chapter 5, P. 167, Table 5.3.

32 Johns, Norman D., et. al., Bays in Peril, (Austin, TX: National Wildlife Federation), October 2004, p. 2.

33 Derived from 2010 Water Loss Audit Reports for Austin, Arlington, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Ft. Worth, Houston, Laredo, Plano, San Antonio.  Received from Juan Moran-Lopez, Water Loss Specialist with TWDB, on November 29, 2012, and Austin Water Utility, undated.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Rubeiz, Camille George , “The lifecycle of current HDPE pipes in potable water applications,” AWWA Hawaii Section 36th Annual Conference, May 18-21, 2010, PowerPoint slide 18.

37 American Water Works Association, Dawn of the Replacement Era, Denver, CO, May 2001.

38 American Water Works Association, Buried No Longer, 2012, p. 9.

39 Ibid., p. 25.

40 Note 2 this section.

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