Why is Drought-Hit Dallas Selling Water?
Jen Sorensen

Why is Drought-Hit Dallas Selling Water?

Here are some things I never ever thought I would hear myself saying. In fact, I'm having a hard time spitting it out. But truth is truth. Sometimes even I have to face that.

Of all the people in this country who live in cities where per capita water-consumption is an issue, Dallas residents do better than most.

Yup. Read it and weep. I do. We consume a much lower percentage of the water we get from rainfall than other water-challenged cities.


Scott Griggs

It's sure not what I was looking for. It doesn't fit my paradigm. And it gets worse. Meaning better. The water supply problems that we do face in the future — you know, too many people, not enough water — are moderate next to what cities like Houston, Denver and Albuquerque can look forward to. Closer to home, we're probably in about twice as good shape as Fort Worth.

This could put me out of business. Luckily, Dallas is still terrible in lots of other aspects of its civic affairs, or I'd just go tie a cement block to my ankle and heave myself into the Trinity River now.

Water? Not so bad.

Let me tell you where I started on this quest. You already know that the city manager of Dallas is imposing all sorts of water rationing on us because of the drought. At the same time, there has been renewed attention to the fact that Dallas Water Utilities sells treated water to 26 suburbs and D/FW International Airport.

In recent weeks I have heard several people ask what seems to me like a terrific question: "Why should we sell our water to the blood-sucking vampire suburbs when we don't have enough of it for ourselves?"

That's my kind of question. I hate vampires.

So, in looking for a little backup for my biases, I called Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, who in the past has been an invaluable source of environmental knowledge that I have been able to sort of claim as my own in columns. I asked her, What about these damned vampires?

Bezanson told me something I was not prepared to hear. She said they're not vampires. They're just suburbs. It's not really our water anyway. She said it comes from the sky.

Well. Yes. I can see that. Cities don't actually make water. They just wait for it to rain, and when it does rain they glom onto the water that falls and flows down into the rivers and reservoirs. They take water out of rivers and streams and store it.

One city can't glom onto all the water in a river, because then the cities downriver would die. Somebody has to sort it out. The amount of water that a city can legally glom onto, Bezanson explained, is determined by the state, which assigns each city its share as water rights.

She said the state gave Dallas the amount of glomming rights it did only because the state assumed Dallas had deals to sell some of that water to the suburbs. "Dallas would not have been given permits for as much water if they did not have this additional market," she said.

Furthermore — and this really stuck in my craw — she said selling the water to the suburbs made sense.

"That's a sound economic thing to do for an entity like Dallas Water Utilities," she said. "They supply some additional cities rather than all of them having their own water utilities. It's more economic that way."

She said the cost of building reservoirs and treatment plants is shared by the suburbs through the payments they make to Dallas for water. "This is more just a matter of who's good at doing this and who pays for them to do it."

This is not to say that Bezanson thinks Dallas and its suburbs are doing everything the right way about water. She pointed out we are in the throes of a dreadful drought, one that may spell true disaster for us if it becomes the equal of the one that brought the city low in the 1950s, and yet we continue, in both the city and the suburbs, to engage in hugely wasteful water uses, like watering St. Augustine grass. Lawns are the worst.

"When you put water on your lawn it evaporates into the atmosphere, and it may wind up out over the Gulf or somewhere. It is lost to the system," she says.

"Everything you use in your household goes down the drain and is picked back up and sent on through the sewer system, so if it's not reused locally at least it runs down the river and somebody uses it downstream."

That brings me to another topic I find especially painful at a personal level. A couple years ago, a coalition of investors and public interest groups called Ceres partnered with the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP to take up an intriguing question: When the credit rating agencies look at cities to see what rating should be given to their bonds, how much attention do they pay to the risk those cities may face of running out of water?

Think about it. If a city ever just flat runs out of water or even gets really really low on supply, people and businesses will start ditching that city. Lots of luck counting on that city to pay you back the money you loaned them when you bought their municipal bonds.

People who buy those bonds count on the rating agencies to tell them how solid the cities are that are selling the bonds. So to what extent are the rating agencies looking at water risk?

The study, "The Ripple Effect: Water Risk in the Municipal Bond Market," published a year ago, said the agencies aren't paying much attention at all. I was starting to feel a little better, because that's pretty grim news, but when I read down to the details, the report had all this relatively good stuff about Dallas.

Of the 10 cities examined — Atlanta, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, San Diego, Tucson — Dallas had the lowest per capita rate of water usage. We're at about half the rate in Phoenix, even though we get more than four times the rainfall.

It gets better (worse for me): At the time of the study, Dallas had the cheapest of all the water rates in the 10 cities, a third the rate in San Diego. I just about had an aneurysm when I saw that, because I hate my water bills so much. If I lived in San Diego and used the same amount of water my household does here, my summer water bills would be a payment on a Lexus. As it is, they're the payment on the bass boat I don't have.

The study was able to come up with an overall "average water risk score" for six cities, based on climate, available resources, political problems and some other factors I couldn't understand. Of the six, Dallas had by far the best score — the least amount of peril — coming in at a rate almost seven times better than Los Angeles and six times better than Atlanta.

There were some other really good things about Dallas in the report, but ... I'm sorry. This just asks too much of me. I've already told you a lot of good stuff. I think I have done my duty here and more.

There was for me a rusty lining in this silver cloud, and I shall cling to it here in closing. The Ceres report said that Dallas has it so good that it is not taking the kind of measures other cities have taken to encourage serious conservation, and we're not talking about making sure your toilet doesn't run while you're away at work.

The rates. They think our rates should be higher. Arrgh! Stab me in the heart while you're at it. But the fact seems to be that raising water rates is far and away the most effective way to encourage conservation. As Bezanson said, the most wasteful use of water may well be on residential lawns. So I should just, I guess, turn over my whole paycheck to the water department every month.

I spoke with Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs at the end of last week, and he was able to provide me with some small comfort by suggesting that water rates in Dallas may be poorly structured.

Griggs said we sell water to the suburbs so cheaply that they are able to provide it to their consumers at rates lower than what Dallas residents are charged. That seems dumb to him, since it's the residents of the city who are carrying all of the risk and responsibility for building and owning the water system.

We have this monopoly, Griggs said. Why would we set it up to the advantage of competing communities and against our own interests?

"The residents of the city of Dallas are responsible for the infrastructure of the water system," he said, "and the population of the city of Dallas isn't growing at the rate of the suburban populations. That disproportionately is going to be a burden on the residents of the city of Dallas."

Griggs is right. Dallas has something to brag about here — an edge. We should use it better. But Bezanson also is right. We still have big regional challenges ahead, and it seems unlikely the solution will be for all of us to stand in the same wading pool trying to draw lines between our water. Much as I would like that.


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