Late yesterday I got a call back from Dallas Water Utilities Director Jody Puckett, for whom I'd left a message about Irving and the North Texas Municipal Water District's need to buy water from the city. We set up a time to chat this morning, and just got through visiting for a little while about several topics -- like, say, Sandy Greyson's concern about selling water to customers to the north consumed with the goal of "unfettered growth," and Scott Griggs's worry that Dallas, which has prepared well for a drought, will become "a backstop for all our surrounding municipalities." So, jump for our little Q&A. Bring a life jacket.
Are you concerned that the longer this drought goes on -- and it looks like it's here to stay, if not intensity, for the foreseeable future -- we're going to become, as Scott Griggs put it a couple of weeks ago, the backstop for surrounding cities that did not prepare as well as Dallas? Are you worried they're going to rely on us more and more?
I don't know about worried. As a steward of trhe state's water, which is what we are, we have this sense of responsibility to serve, and just because someone's short on water doesn't mean thay haven't done all they can do to plan. I don't want to throw anyone under the bus or, in this case, the boat, which isn't floating anyway, but the situation the North Texas district is facing with an invasive species [Zebra mussels], no one planned for that, just like we didn't plan for an MTBE [methyl tertiary-butyl ethers] pill in Lake Tawakoni years ago. We had to shut the lake down, and that temporarily pulled the supply out of the inventory, and when that happens, that's why we have the drought management plan.
The challenge I think for us is, as systems are been built over time, they've been built in their own bubble, for lack of a better term. So when someone gets into trouble, we have to ask: Is there any way to help them? And the reliance on one reservoir is a bit of a challenge.
You mean, the NTMWD with Lavon, or ...
Irving is a better one. We treat their [Lake] Chapman water for them, and it's valuable for us and the region they bring that water in. That's a good thing. The fact that over the last six, eight years that lake has yo-yo'd, for lack of a better term -- it was down 70 percent a few years ago, then it rained -- that's a cycle of drought. But you still have a long-term challenge to be sustainable. Three entities have rights in that lake: Sulphur Springs, North Texas, Irving. And the Upper Trinity Regional Water District gets water via a contract with Sulphur Springs, and they're our customer too. If that supply runs out, we have that challenge as well. How you balance that and then how you react to it, our plan wasn't designed to react to those issues. We're trying to work that through.
Well, sure, there's that. But Lavon, for instance, has been emptying at a dizzying rate. And certainly, one of the reasons for going to watering restrictions at long last on December 12 stems from the fact the NTMWD came to the city before then and said: Help.
That kink added to our decision process. Technically the way the process works is I make a recommendation to the manager, and either she agrees or not. We at Dallas Water Utilities have a three-pronged issue: The supply status, the fact I am going to have a plant restriction in the summer, and the potential sale of water. And the other thing is the fact we serve 26 other cities, plus ourselves. I felt like it was time to move forward even though it's not a big watering season. Our demands are dropping, as they should this time of the year, and it's rained a little.
If I have a worry, and the city manager says I worry enough for everybody, it's if we're approaching a new drought of record. That's a place none of us have been in the water business, and if I have a worry, that's my worry. How do we deal with that over the next months and years?
You guys just put out an RFQ for a long-term water plan, through 2070 -- again, a sign that Dallas has planned ahead since the historic drought of the mid-1950s. Reading that, it seems that one of the city's concerns in the future, near and long-term, will involve reconciling to whom we sell and for how much.
There are physical limitations. There's only so much water we can sell. From our planning standpoint it's all about risk. If I wanted to sell all my water to 'em, I couldn't. And regarding the North Texas district issue, they're working on capital projects to replace that water over the next three years. My last conversation with them was in late October, and my understanding is they're looking at building a direct pipeline from Texoma so they can use it like they hoped to be able to. We're also looking at a mainstem pump project in the Trinity River for the North Texas district so they can bring more water to their wetlands to move to Lavon. They use Lavon as a balancing reservoir to bring their water in and have a treatment plant in Wylie. That's over $300 million, and they have engineering under way to get that done.
As we evaluate what and how much we should charge for that water, that's what we're scratching our heads over. We have Irving and North Texas and Luminant as our main customers. Luminant has a contract to get water out ot Lake Fork, because it needs water to cool its power plants. I am motivated to sell them water because I need power to run my business. And Luminant has little to no impact, because we trade some with them on the west side of their operations. The other two aren't so simple.
The North Texas district says it hopes to get the city council to sign off on a deal by February ...
That's their time frame when they came to us in mid-October. It's not adversarial, let me make that clear. What does it mean to us? I'm going to take 30 to 50 million gallons a day out of my inventory. What's the fiscal impact? I might have planned to sell it to somebody else, like my customers. But it's all part of the math of it. And we need to be reasonable.
Yesterday in the comments a reader pointed out that raising water rates for large commercial users might do more to increase conservation than forcing restrictions solely on residential users.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Well, all the restrictions currently apply to outdoor water use. We have not approached companies like Texas Instruments or Mary Kay or Nestle or Niagra about reducing their production. Coca-Cola and a lot of companies already have incentives to use less water anyway because it improves profitability. Our contingency plans don't target industrial and commercial use. They target discretionary use, which is outdoor water. In the event we get to Stage Four restrictions, let's say, do we ask companies to reduce production? That's a scary place to be. We're not there. But all the drought plans that you have are for our outdoor discretionary uses, and one of our outreaches will be golf courses and large companies that set their sprinklers and forget about them. There's still a lot of low-hanging fruit out there.
Back to another comment: Are we underwriting sprawl?
I don't know any one thing any one does encourages urban sprawl. I grew up here. I don't see what has discouraged it, quite frankly. But what we're talking about in terms of volume in terms of the North Texas district is probably 20 percent of their demand, maybe. I don't know if I have that exactly right, but they asked for 60 million gallons per day, and they may sell upwards of 350 MGD, 400 MGD a day. Even if they bring their demands down substantially, we'll help them get over their hump, but we won't be able to serve their communities.
It's more making sure their pump intakes stay covered in water so they can get these other capital improvements done. I don't know if I agree with that comment [about underwriting sprawl]. It does appear to me the same growth and development that has occured in Collin and Denton counties looks like what happened in the '50s, when we had that historic drought and a high-growth rate. It may be history repeating itself, but I'm not a historian. I'm an engineer. The parallels might be interesting to explore.