“Water Resiliency and the Never Ending Drought”
By: Dirk Aaron, General Manager, CUWCD

Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District and our Partners have set the 22nd Bell County Water Symposium for November 14, 2023, in Belton at the Cadence Bank Center (formerly Bell County Expo) on Loop 121. The theme of this year’s event is “Water Resiliency and the Never Ending Drought”.

The legacy partners of the annual event are the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Bell County, the Bell County Engineers Office, and the Bell County Commissioners Court. We also have eleven additional sponsors who have been so very supportive in years past.

The water symposium has been a mainstay in Bell County since 2001 and continues to be an event that provides insight into water providers, regulatory responsibilities of each, local & regional water strategies, and ultimately a place for all stakeholders to attend and understand the magnitude of our shared role in meeting the regional needs of water to the many communities and industries of Central Texas.

The Keynote of the Day will be delivered by Dr. Hal Needham, an Extreme Weather and Disaster Scientist located in Galveston Texas. Dr. Hal has been an extreme weather and disaster scientist with fifteen plus years’ experience conducting data-driven risk analysis for disaster-prone communities. He specializes in science communication to both professional scientists and the public on extreme weather such as floods and drought. He hosts the GeoTrek podcast https://www.geo-trek.com/podcast , ranked by FeedSpot as the #1 podcast on natural disasters.

Dr. Hal is also an international expert on coastal flooding and directs the U-Surge Project, which provides the first comprehensive coastal flood data for the United States, Australia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and India. He is lead scientist for Flood Information Systems, where he develops address-based flood risk tools. He resides in Galveston, Texas, site of the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. He has obtained a B.S. from Penn State University and M.S. and doctoral degrees from Louisiana State University.

Having somebody of Dr. Hal’s stature on the issues and challenges of “Extreme Weather” from both a national and local perspective adds a new dimension to our conference, especially as we navigate the emotions related to our persistent and/or perpetual droughts. He will offer an insightful description of understanding the history of droughts and famines while navigating weather patterns in a rapidly changing world. Dr. Hal will help us all align our personal perspectives on fact and understanding.  Hopefully, the attendees glean from his comments personal discernment on how we can resolve or don’t resolve our current or pending disputes over both surface water and groundwater. These are unique times of perpetual drought yet persistent in Central Texas.

The Honorable Bell County Judge, David Blackburn, will welcome the day’s attendees and give us an update and understanding of the growth in our County which is a serious concern of citizens living in the unincorporated rural areas. Judge Blackburn is a key leader in Bell County who is helping all communities navigate the need to understand many issues related to our expanding population, our demand for new developments, and the need to supply water in a sustainable fashion. Judge Blackburn, in his many roles as County Judge, represents the county’s interest in the Regional Water Planning Group known as Brazos G which participates in the State Water Planning Process. Judge Blackburn is a key leader in Bell County who is helping all communities navigate the need to understand many issues related to our expanding population, our demand for new developments, and the need to supply water in a sustainable fashion.

Our first speaker of the morning will be Mr. Tony Smith, Associate Vice President of Carollo Engineers in Austin Texas. Tony states that he has been fortunate to work with and lead experts on various multi-disciplinary projects in many states. He has served as the Project Manager for the development of 2016, 2021, and now the 2026 North East Texas Regional Water Plans. Most importantly, he is serving as the Project Manager for the 2026 Brazos G Regional Water Plan of which both myself and Judge Blackburn serve and represent Bell County interests. He is also serving as Project Engineer supporting the development of the 2026 Update for the State of Oklahoma’s Water Plan. Tony knows and understands water issues both in planning and delivering water to industry and residents.

Mr. Brad Brunett, BRA’s Lower & Central Basin Regional Manager, will follow Mr. Smith with an update on BRA’s Water Management Strategies including but not limited to the recent announcement of the “Belhouse Drought Preparedness Project”. This project is a planned water transport system linking Lake Belton to Stillhouse Hollow Lake and has been planned for years to provide access to water where it is needed. It is designed to delay the need for the development of additional new sources of water, including the building of new reservoirs, which could cost millions, if not billions of dollars, and may not be feasible.

Brad will also provide an in-depth update of the Allens Creek Reservoir which is a water supply storage reservoir planned for construction near the City of Wallis in Austin County. The reservoir is planned to be “off-channel,” meaning it will be built near the Brazos River on Allens Creek, a tributary of the Brazos. A permit to build the reservoir was originally issued to Houston Lighting & Power Company (HL&P – a predecessor of NRG) in 1974 to provide cooling water for a proposed nuclear power plant. The power plant was not built, and eventually, HL&P allowed the water rights permit for the reservoir to expire.

The Brazos River Authority and the City of Houston purchased the 9,500-acre Allens Creek Reservoir site from Reliant Energy in 2000. For the past several years, the reservoir project has been on hold. However, due to the increasing need for water supply in the Brazos River basin, the Brazos River Authority purchased full rights to the reservoir from the City of Houston and the Texas Water Development Board in May 2022. The BRA will be the sole developer/owner of the reservoir moving forward.

The actual construction phase of the reservoir will commence after all applicable permits are issued. Construction activities could take an additional 4-7 years after permits are issued. Construction is not expected to begin until 2030 at the earliest. Water stored in Allens Creek Reservoir will be used to meet the anticipated growth in demand for surface water in the Lower Brazos basin due to projected population increases and hopefully reduces the required releases from both Belton and Stillhouse Lakes for downstream users. The reservoir will also help satisfy regulatory requirements to reduce groundwater pumping, which contributes to land subsidence in the lower Brazos River basin.

In addition, myself and our Board President, Leland Gersbach and the District’s Geoscientist, Mr. Mike Keester will present and update on the groundwater resources across the county and provide specifics on current uses of groundwater, pending permits and status of the groundwater resources across the region.  We will present updated data per our most recent studies conducted and funded by the district to address many of the new understandings of the depletion of artesian pressure in the Trinity Aquifer in the most southwestern portions of our County. An update on the Edwards BFZ aquifer will also be highlighted as the resources and permitees have reduced pumping the last two years due to the persistent drought of 2022-23. Ample time will be afforded for attendees to ask questions as it relates to groundwater. The issue of regional drawdown has been discussed annually in a collaborative effort with our Legislators, County Judges and Commissioners of Bell County, other Groundwater Conservation Districts, and the geoscience consulting community in our six-county area.

We round out the morning’s program, with lunch, followed by our keynote address from Dr. Hal, Extreme Weather Blogger.

Following a catered lunch, two very important panel of experts will specifically address “Aquifer Storage & Recovery the New Reservoir” by a seven-member panel of ASR experts and those pursuing the need for this invisible reservoir for Bell County. Planned and implemented strategies for our county will be laid out by the panelists. We have been discussing this since 2019 and the time has arrived for the public to know the specific facts and ingenuity being applied by science experts and the regulatory community.

The final presentation will be one of the most important aspects of this year’s symposium. New and existing homeowners have expressed consternation and disbelief that public and private water use needs curtailment in times of drought. The district, while empathetic to private investment in landscape, the future is upon us that use of potable water for landscape is coming to a major shift thus Rainwater Catchment is a strategy we all must do to protect our outdoor areas and trees. Mr. Allan Standen is the recipient of the 2023 Texas Water Development Rain Catcher Award recognizing his excellence in design and implementation of rain catchment in his home. He received this award on October 5, 2023.

The Standen residence was designed and built with rainwater harvesting in mind since municipal water service is unavailable in the neighborhood. The design provides for 100 percent of the household water needs by maximizing the 4,000-square foot metal roof collection area while minimizing the conveyance distance between roof eaves and storage tanks. The two 10,000-gallon storage tanks are located underneath an exterior deck, allowing the system to conform to the natural slope of the lot while keeping the tanks out of sight. By collecting and capturing rainwater, Mr. Standen has conserved local groundwater resources by avoiding the need to drill a well, minimized erosion, and provided water back into the watershed through an underground overflow pipe.

The Texas Rain Catcher Award competition began in 2007 and is open to all individuals, companies, organizations, municipalities, and other local and state governmental entities in Texas. It recognizes entities and individuals in the rainwater harvesting community and beyond and establishes award recipients as dedicated water conservation leaders in Texas. The Standen residence is one of five awardees being recognized statewide this year.

Allen will present on how he has adapted his entire home to rainwater use. His originality and innovation and knowledge of how to adapt by innovation is key to his success. Mr. Standen is not new to Bell County because as a professional geoscientist he has overseen the development of the 3D visualization of the County for Clearwater which has brought great discernment on how managing the resource is being affected by the geologic structure of the County and the influence of overuse in Williamson County has affected the resource in such a negative way that is now insurmountable in sustain the resource in the next decade.

The Board of Directors of Clearwater UWCD look forward to another year of showcasing the importance of both surface water and groundwater to our robust economy coupled with the untethered growth and demands occurring along the IH35 corridor. Call 254-933-0120 to reserve your seat by November 9, 2023.

Dirk Aaron has been the general manager for Clearwater since June 2011. Prior to that, he served as an extension agent with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service for more than 30 years. Contact Dirk at daaron@cuwcd.org or Tristin Smith tsmith@cuwcd.org.