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The Associated Press December 15, 2011, 3:55PM ET

Texas approves plan assessing future water needs

Texas approved a somberly worded plan on Thursday that lays out where the state should spend $53 billion to cope with its water needs over the next half century, and warns that future droughts may mean not enough supply to keep up with growing demand.

The 295-page report by the Texas Water Development Board says that to avoid a potentially thirsty future, the state should implement 562 infrastructure and conservation projects that include building 26 new reservoirs as well as numerous dams, pipelines and wells -- but it provides little guidance on how to pay for such infrastructure.

Texas is suffering through its worst single-year drought on record, making the question especially acute.

The board's latest version of a plan produced every five years says the state's population is expected to grow 82 percent by 2060, increasing water demand 22 percent even as supply is slated to drop 10 percent. It says failing to meet future water needs could cost Texas $11.9 billion per year if the current drought approaches the state's worst on record between 1950 and 1957, and up to $115.7 billion annually by 2060.

"The primary message of the 2012 State Water Plan is a simple one: In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises," board chairman Edward Vaughan wrote in the introduction.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon says Texas has endured droughts in five of the past seven years, and that the current one is likely to continue at least until next fall -- and may rival the 1950s one.

Rains in recent weeks have helped bring Texas back from the brink. About 41 percent of the state is now in exceptional drought, compared to nearly 88 percent three months ago. But La Nina weather patterns will also likely ensure Texas rainfall remains minimal at least through June.

Also, during Thursday's meeting, the board heard that reservoir storage statewide is at a record low of 58 percent.

If all of the plan's recommended projects are implemented, Texas would generate an additional 9 million acre-feet of water per year by 2060. An acre-foot is about enough water to supply a typical household for a year.

But funding $53 million in water projects won't be easy. Facing massive budget shortfalls, state lawmakers have made only about $1.4 billion available for future water needs. That means the rest would have to come from local communities and municipal water suppliers, which are themselves facing cash shortages.

The report recommends that the state Legislature spell out steps to obtain potential sites for new reservoirs, ease restrictions on the voluntary transfer of surface water and look at more long-term solutions to pay for water plan projects. The board will present the approved plan to Gov. Rick Perry and legislators before Jan. 5, but there is little mechanism to follow up with lawmakers about implementation after that.

Inaction will only make things more costly, though. Inflation, as well as calling for more use of water treatment and desalinization facilities and pipelines, increased the estimated price of the state's water needs from $31 billion in the 2007 report.

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