Men's Breakfast Report, August 2011

The Men’s Breakfast Group met Saturday, August 13 with Carolyn Johnson, our member of the Brazos River Authority.  She graduated from Lanier High School in Freeport got a degree in chemistry and went to work for Dow until she retired.    Her work was primarily in the area of water and waste water.  She was appointed to the Brazos River Authority board while at Dow and has recently and has recently been reappointed to the board by the Governor. 

The Brazos river is the longest river entirely within Texas, rising in the Panhandle and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Freeport.  Since much of the river basin is in west Texas, the flow is subject to drought and the flow is quite variable.  During low flows, such as at present, salt water flows up the river.  When the salt water tongue reaches the Brazoria reservoir, water can no longer be taken from the river at this point.

The Brazos River Authority was formed in 1929 and is the oldest river authority in the nation.  The authority has no regulatory or taxing powers and is funded entirely by sales of water and services.  The authority owns three reservoirs and operates nine Corp of Engineers reservoirs.  It owns canals and pipelines for transporting water within the basin to end users.  It also operates sewage and water treatment plants for cities and water districts in the basin. 

The reservoirs are water storage and flood control reservoirs.  Therefore, they can be drawn down to very low levels during a drought.  The reservoirs are also used for recreation.  When the reservoirs are drawn down boating becomes difficult and boaters complain.  There complaints are not given much weight because the purpose of the reservoir is water storage.  Recently, boaters at on reservoir were told to prepare their boats for a draw down since the reservoir was going to drop five inches a week.  With the present drought, the reservoirs are filled to about 60% of capacity, with some much lower. 

Some water rights to the river are senior rights that belong to entities that obtained the rights before the authority gained control of the river.  Dow is a holder of some senior rights and sells some of its water to the Brazosport Water Authority.  This means that we have priority over most other claimants to the water.  Most of the water belongs to the Brazos River Authority which sells the water to various users.  The present price is $62 per acre-foot.  Several contracts, to electric power utilities were sold long ago for much lower prices.  The authority is waiting for these contracts to expire so it can get the higher prices. 

When a city takes water from the river and sells it to its citizens, most of the water comes back to the sewer plant and then put back into the river.  Some cities have claimed that this is still their water and want to take it out again without paying for it.  The Authority has declared that this water is now the authority’s water and denied the claim.  The city could send the treated sewage directly to the water plant, but the citizens would find this too yucky to allow. 

The present population of the 65 counties in the Brazos River basin is 3.7 million and the projected population in 2060 is 7.2 million.  This means that there will be a much greater demand for water in the future.  The Round Rock area population is already exploding.  One of the ways to satisfy these needs is more reservoirs.  One reservoir, Allen Creek is already in the permitting stage.  The time from starting to permit a reservoir to its being filled is about thirty years.  The permitting can take several years because of environmental impact studies.  The Allen Creek reservoir is supposed to be a joint project between the Brazos River Authority and the city of Houston.  Houston has recently asked to delay or withdraw from the project because Houston can get water from the Trinity river.  The cost of the reservoir will be about two hundred million dollars. 

There was also discussion of ground water.  The water table in the area is dropping because of excess withdrawals.  This is the reason that the cities are using surface water from the Bazosport Water Authority and td the Brazos River.  Texas has the law of capture for ground water which means that whatever you can pump is yours, no matter how much damage it does to your neighbor’s wells or springs.  T. Boone Pickens tried to take advantage of this by proposing to pump form Oglala aquifer and selling the water to Dallas.  This prompted the formation of ground water districts over most of the state.  These districts can regulate how much water you can pump.  The rule is generally that you can pump all you want for your own use, but selling to others is controlled.  In general it is not allowed to sell water outside the district. 

One source of fresh water that was discussed was desalinated salt water.  Freeport had a demonstration desalinization plant in the sixties, and older members of the group remember drinking Freeport water from the plant.  However, the plant was moved to Guantanamo when Castro shut off water to the base.    Desalinization is very energy and capital intensive and therefore desalinated water is expensive.  Most desalination plants are therefore in the Middle East where water is very scarce and energy is cheap.  There is brackish water in the salt fork of the Brazos that could be desalinated more cheaply, but disposing of the brine would be a problem.  Pipelines cost about one million dollars a mile, and dumping the brine in the river would not produce any benefit. 

As usual the men had an interesting discussion and a good breakfast.  The next breakfast will be Saturday, September 10.