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Don’t let big developers privatize water rights

Water supply should be governed by broad cooperating coalitions, not private competing factions.

Since the beginning of humankind, groups of us have searched for shelter, food and, above all else, water. Water has always been and will always be essential to human survival. So it’s not hyperbole to say that water rights, water supply, and water quality carry existential importance. And as water becomes more scarce, bad water policy will become more attractive.

Case in point: In April, Arlington-based developer D.R. Horton spent $291 million to buy its own water development agency which, according to its website, provides “development solutions for end users by identifying, acquiring and developing water rights, often within fragmented agricultural markets, and over time converting these water rights to higher valued municipal and industrial uses.”

Translation: Developers are looking to secure private ownership of water supplies for their properties. And why wouldn’t they? That’s quite an amenity for a developer to be able to promise: a reliable supply of clean water in an arid state in the middle of a drought.

But such a scenario could also deprive downstream ranchers, farmers and cities that rely on the same surface and subsurface water resources. Not only would large-scale privatization of water introduce volatility into the commonly held public water supply, it might lead to a situation in which private companies and political influence affect access to water.

D.R. Horton won’t be the last company to pursue this business strategy. And the ad hoc nature of water policy in North Texas makes our state vulnerable to misstep.

In Austin, San Antonio and Bexar County, private water rights are not allowed. Residents and the private sector are prohibited from drilling wells, harvesting water resources, or capturing surface water. The entire region is a protected area over the Edwards Aquifer.

Dallas is different. Dallas and most of the surrounding area is in the Trinity River Basin, and more specifically, in Region C under the Texas Water Development Board, which lacks the protections on water supply in place in Bexar.

Further, Dallas County is not currently in a groundwater conservation district, which would require more vigilant restrictions on groundwater collection, redirection and use.

Dallas has been growing for 100 years, requiring vigilant water planning. In 1909, the city of Dallas bought 2,292 acres of land for $176,000 to start the construction of a 100-year water reservoir and resource. They called it White Rock Lake. This seemingly vast expanse of water took four years to fill due to drought, but started service in 1915. Despite being gauged to hold 5.8 billion gallons of water, by the mid-1920′s Dallas already needed a new reservoir, and by 1929 White Rock ceased supplying water to Dallas, according to White Rock Lake, a 2010 history of the area by Sally Rodriguez.

The growth of our city has been extraordinary. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Dallas-Fort Worth has grown from 210,000 at the time of the construction of White Rock, to more than 7.6 million in 2020. The population of the city of Dallas has grown in corollary manner: 159,000 in 1920; 1.33 million in 2020. The growth of D-FW over the next 20 years is projected to take us over 10 million. All of that growth demands more water.

The process of creating a new water reservoir — planning, land identification, acquisition, permitting, construction, reservoir filling, pipeline and full delivery infrastructure — takes up to 40 years. Yes, 40 years. With rapid population growth, landing behind the power curve of this process creates real problems.

Dallas Water Utilities is currently operating under the 2014 Dallas Long Range Water Supply Plan, which is supposed to take us to 2070. That plan includes projected demand by Dallas and 28 other cities and entities that are supplied water either fully or partially through the Dallas program.

The calculation of supply and demand in this plan is very complex. Demand includes a variety of assumptions, including population growth, shifts in usage (both in residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural), changing user tendencies, the density of development, land use, run-off and conservation efforts.

The supply side of the calculation includes regional needs, reservoir capacities, changing climate impacts, needs and requirements from smaller subscribing cities, and rural areas.

The state of Texas has mandatory regional planning areas in which all entities must work together to arrive at collective understandings and agreements. This regional collaboration has been beneficial for the region both in supply planning, as well as costs. Dallas Water Utilities’ collaboration with Tarrant County on an integrated pipeline from the new reservoir at Lake Palestine saved Dallas an enormous amount of money, reducing capital costs to Dallas Water Utilities by estimates of up to $500 million, according to city staff.

Water was the primary requirement for what land could be civilized in ancient times, was a critical piece of early Dallas infrastructure, and is no less critical for today and our future. To preserve and protect our water needs and water rights, Dallas needs to continue to fight for the highest level of public government control. Since all of us need water and all of us are interconnected by Texas rivers and aquifers, planning and regulation must be administered by broad cooperating coalitions, not private competing factions. We need our state legislators to hold firm on protection of our regional water rights. We need continued coordinated funding from the state to support our future water resource requirements. We need to focus on water conservation as it’s an integral piece of the water supply. And we need to continue to invest in future infrastructure.

The water we have now is the most plentiful and least expensive water we will ever have. It’s up to us to steward it well in our planning, actions, and re-investment.

Michael Ablon is a developer in Dallas. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

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