- Associated Press - Monday, May 12, 2014

BEE CAVE, Texas (AP) - To meet the growing water needs of western Travis and northern Hays County, officials at a regional water authority are looking more than 80 miles to the east.

They are hoping water that burbles up beneath the blackland soil in northern Lee and southern Burleson counties will solve the needs of their growing customer base in the sprawling subdivisions around Bee Cave and Dripping Springs.

The far-flung span of the potential water play suggests how creative - or desperate - officials in general are becoming as they contemplate the best way to slake the thirst of their growing population, the Austin American-Statesman reported (http://bit.ly/1s4MfLH).

One plan involves hundreds of millions of dollars, eventually to be recovered through ratepayers in Hays County and other Central Texas governments, to build a pipeline to deliver water to the Interstate-35 corridor before the water gets hooked up with pipes in western Travis and northern Hays counties.

Another plan floated by the chief western Travis County water utility involves Austin acting as a kind of middle man, with the city’s right hand catching water from the east, and the left releasing it to the west. But that effort, haunted by the legacy of environmental conflict over the delivery of water to the Hill Country, appears doomed to failure in Austin.

In a way, the water planning projects are a miniature version of the regional water challenges that have long bedeviled the state, of moving H2O from water-rich areas in the east of the state to the seemingly unquenchable cities in its central corridor.

The water in Bee Cave, Dripping Springs and a dozen or so subdivisions is provided by the West Travis County Public Utility Agency, whose service area sprawls over 200 square miles. The agency, created in 2012, is the inheritor of a controversial Lower Colorado River Authority project dreamed up in the late 1990s that sent water pipelines down U.S. 290 that accelerated growth in the parts of the Hill Country nearest Austin.

Right now, the utility’s customers - it serves about 45,000 people - use only about half the water the utility is entitled to take from the Colorado River, its sole source of water. But with the population forecast to grow by as much as 8 percent annually, and anxious about long-term drought consequences on the Highland Lakes, agency officials have begun searching for ways to augment their supplies.

“As we expand we have to develop new supplies,” general manager Don Rauschuber said. “We have to look 30 to 40 years ahead. All the easy options are already taken.”

The utility wants to expand its holdings by as much as 10 million gallons of water per day, or roughly enough to satisfy the daily needs of 35,000 average Austin households.

To get there, the water authority has had talks with Austin and BlueWater Systems about a “wheeling” collaboration: BlueWater would pump water through an existing pipeline from its well field in Burleson County to Manor, on the eastern flank of Austin’s service area; the water would be lightly treated and softened and then incorporated into Austin’s water network; and, on its southwestern flank, Austin would hook into the West Travis County Public Utility Agency’s system to provide water.

A molecule of Burleson County water may not actually reach a faucet in Dripping Springs, but the plan would be a “mass balance,” said Rauschuber, with roughly equal amounts of water flowing in and out of the Austin system.

Austin Water Utility director Greg Meszaros had a meeting with Public Utility Agency officials this year, but he told the American-Statesman that the wheeling plan “has no legs for us.” ”It’s not that we’re not looking for water. But the City Council had a long-standing policy of not facilitating growth in the drinking water protection zone.”

That’s the area of the Hill Country nearest Austin whose streams ultimately contribute to the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

“(This project) would be going against a lot of long-standing practices,” he said. “It’s a creative idea, but not something for us. I don’t really see a pathway for that to work.”

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