Aquifer Storage and Recovery: HB 655 Reduces Red Tape

Reservoir-building is a Texas tradition – approximately 40 percent of the state’s water supply comes from these man-made lakes. While reservoirs are Texas’s traditional method of water storage, they are terribly inefficient. They lose large amounts of water to evaporation, sometimes over 40 percent of their storage. Total evaporation for the Highland Lakes was 192,404 acre-feet in 2011 – that’s more than the entire City of Austin’s 2011 water use (168,334 acre-feet).

Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) confronts this problem head on. ASR is exactly what it sounds like: water is injected into an aquifer and stored for later use. Storing water underground is economically and technologically viable and completely eliminates evaporation losses. There are already over 80 operating ASR projects in the U.S.; however, only three of these are in Texas.

In large part, this is because the regulatory scheme in Texas is outdated. ASR projects using appropriated surface water are regulated differently (under Sec 11.153-11.155 of the Texas Water Code) than projects using groundwater as the source (Chapter 36). The statutes concerning groundwater injection projects are vague, leaving groundwater conservation districts (GCDs), the entities in charge of regulating groundwater in Texas, with little guidance.

Regardless of the origin of the injected water, projects are also subject to the rules of the GCD with jurisdiction over the area. These districts are incredibly varied – there are 101 of these districts in Texas, each with their own rules for dealing with groundwater injection, pumping, and transferring. As of 2011, only 22 districts addressed ASR projects in their rules, with three expressly prohibiting them.

Additionally, there is a perceived inability to protect stored water once it is in the ground. This concern stems from the fact that GCDs have authority to regulate pumping rates and volumes, a fact that could potentially prevent a project operator from retrieving necessary volumes of injected water. Additionally, project operators worry that landowners over the injection area who, under rule of capture, are entitled to pump, could take advantage of the injected water.

Understandably, this regulatory environment deters prospective investors from attempting such projects; however, this may be changing. HB 655, filed this session by Rep. Larson (R-District 122), addresses many of these regulatory pitfalls.   

The Bill

HB 655 does a number of things to reduce regulatory complexity and uncertainty in ASR projects:

  1. The bill repeals the current regulations for surface water ASR projects, and instead introduces the same regulatory framework for all ASR projects regardless of whether the injected water is surface or groundwater.
  2. Clearly establishes the steps for achieving an ASR permit. The permitting process will go through TCEQ, with monthly and yearly reports being submitted to both TCEQ and the local district. This eliminates the challenge of dealing with the diverse regulatory landscape of groundwater districts.*
  3. District pumping limits are only applied when a project has pumped more water from the aquifer than was injected. This ensures that operators will be able access the water they’ve injected without regulatory interference, while allowing GCDs to manage and protect native groundwater.

This bill will reduce regulatory barriers and costs currently impeding ASR—an especially important move in West and South Texas, where small municipalities often lack the resources to take on large projects with high levels of risk, but experience the highest evaporation rates in the state.

*Some groundwater districts are exempt, including the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, the Fort Bend Subsidence District, the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, and the Edwards Aquifer Authority.  The Corpus Christi ASR Conservation District will also be exempt.