Dallas, TX – Ever wonder where your water comes from? How it gets to your faucet? In the third part of a series on water availability called "Thirsty", KERA's BJ Austin continues the series. This story is part of a larger KERA multimedia project called 'Living with the Trinity', which can be explored online at trinityrivertexas.org.
Sam: Who decides how much water can be used, and for what purposes? BJ Austin is here to answer those questions as part of our continuing series on water availability, called "Thirsty". So, who uses more - businesses, homes or agriculture?
BJ: It varies throughout the state. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area it is primarily homeowners by a long shot. Homeowners account for about 60 percent of the billions of gallons consumed each year. We filed open-records requests with Dallas and Fort Worth utilities to find out just which homeowners use the most. Fort Worth claims some of that information is confidential. But, here's a hint for Dallas: baseball.
Sam: And businesses - who uses the most there?
BJ: Think "beer and chips". In Fort Worth it's Miller Brewing, and in Dallas it's Texas Instruments. Both industries need a lot of water to produce their products. And both have large-scale water conservation programs - but even if they didn't, they might still get all the water they want.
In North Texas, money makes the lawn sprinklers go 'round. Mary Gugliuzza, Fort Worth Water Department public information officer, said the department does not have a cap on how much water a customer can buy.
"I don't know of anyone that does," Gugluizza said. "I don't know of anyone in the country that does."
Fort Worth has a three-tier residential pricing system to encourage conservation. The more water you use, the more you pay per gallon. Dallas Water Utilities has a tiered-rate system for residential AND commercial for the same conservation reasons - but Dallas Water Utilities director Jody Puckett said there's no limit on water consumption.
"We don't have a pre-set number, such as a water budget, that once you hit your budget we turn you off," Puckett said. "Basically, you can use what you pay for."
Last year, Texas Instruments, Dallas' biggest commercial water user, consumed more than two billion gallons of water. That's enough to fill 80,000 backyard swimming pools. The company, however, gets good marks for its conservation efforts. Laurie Lehmberg, TI's environmental and energy manager, said it takes a lot of water to make computer chips. She said the two-billion-gallon total was a cutback from the previous year.
"In 2008, we reduced our water use by more than 7 percent," Lehmberg said. "This process was implemented in 2006. A little more than 70 percent of the water that's used in this cooling tower is recycled water. That amounts to about 145 million gallons a year that we save from the re-use of that water."
Miller Brewing in Fort Worth uses nearly a billion gallons a year. However, the company has already met its 2010 goal to cut the amount of water it uses to make beer, and has an energy and water conservation team on site.
But by far, residential customers account for most of the water consumption in Dallas and Fort Worth. Lawn watering is a big factor. The average Dallas water customer gets billed for about 100,000 gallons a year - but Dallas' top residential water user consumed 100 times that last year. Tom Hicks - owner of the Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers - used 10 million gallons of water at his 20-acre North Dallas estate. Hicks lives in a 29,000-square-foot house, with 12 bathrooms, a large pool, a spa, two cabanas, and lush landscaping. Puckett said 10 million gallons for one household is an attention-grabber.
"It does sound like a lot," he said. "But by the same token, I've not researched his usage per acre. Just because you use a lot of water doesn't mean you're not using it efficiently. We're not big brother-ish, you know - 'How did you use that drop?' We've not gone out and tried to figure out whether he's using water the best way he can.
"He seems to be a pretty good businessman, so I figured he'd make those choices on his own."
Outside the Hicks estate, Rita Beving with the Sierra Club has a different take on it.
"I find that pretty phenomenal," Beving said. "Dallas continues to use, in different areas of town, as much as 20 percent more than the average citizens across the state. Legally, one may be able to use as much water as you want, but logically it doesn't make sense. Just because you have wealth doesn't mean you should be able to waste water."
In a statement, Tom Hicks said, "As a family, we are always concerned about conservation, and we constantly examine ways to preserve water, our state's most precious resource. There's no question that there is a great deal of water consumed. Our family is always looking for ways to cut back on consumption especially during this Texas drought, and we will continue to do so."
Is there anyone putting limits on the amount of water individual customers may use? It's hard to say. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the TCEQ, decides who gets water from specific sources, how much, and for what purpose - such as agriculture, industry and municipal water use. The TCEQ issues permits for water use to "sellers", such as the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. Todd Chenoweth, TCEQ Water Supply Manager, said his office makes sure permit holders have a good, written conservation program. But he said the TCEQ relies on water planners in North Texas - Region C in the agency's classification system - to tell them how much water the area needs.
"At the statewide level, we aren't looking at individual water users, whether that be residential homeowners or particular industries," Chenoweth said. "We're looking at overall per-capita water consumption for a municipality. We rely very heavily on the regional planning group in Region C to set reasonable goals for water conservation in the future."
Beving said somebody needs to set limits.
"I think we need to do something about the big users, and we can do something reasonable," she said. "I think that's all we want from everyone."
The Sierra Clubs's state director Ken Kramer, who monitors the TCEQ, is more blunt.
"Even though TCEQ, which grants the permits, requires a water conservation plan to be submitted with most permit applications, they don't really do a substantive review of those water conservation plans," Kramer said. "It's more like checking a box to make sure that a plan is turned in. They don't really evaluate whether or not it's a good plan, (or) whether it has the chance of actually achieving the water conservation goals that are-set."
The TCEQ's Chenoweth doesn't see caps on individual water use happening anytime soon. But he does see more conflicts in the future over who gets the state's remaining water rights, and maybe even conflicts over day-to-day operation of water systems.
Sam: So in the meantime, you can use as much water as you can pay for.
BJ: That seems to be the case. In fairness to Mr. Hicks, we're going to keep after Fort Worth to identify its top residential users.
Sam: In our series this week we've talked about having enough water for the future. For North Texas water planners, that means reservoirs. Friday, Shelley Kofler will take you to East Texas, where landowners are fighting to keep "thirsty" urbanites from flooding their property for a reservoir. To learn more about water in our region visit our new Web site, trinityrivertexas.org.