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.
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."
In other words, any deal involving Austin would face deep skepticism from the city's environmentalist bloc.
Another option: In March, Public Utility Agency water authority board members began reviewing a draft engineering report, obtained by the Statesman, that examined a possible collaboration with Hays County to build a pipeline from northern Lee County to import groundwater pumped by the company Forestar Real Estate.
Total project costs come to between $170 million and $350 million, depending on the pipeline route, infrastructure involved and the number of collaborators on the project, as estimated in the $40,000 report by Murfee Engineering.
But that potential collaboration also faces significant hurdles.
Forestar is engaged in a legal battle to pump and export water, and Hays County officials have had little luck in finding cities or other counties willing to commit to the project.
Pix Howell, a paid consultant on water matters for both Hays County and the West Travis County utility, said counties could use a new population to help pay down the debt on roadway projects — but they need water in place to serve the new population.
"There's a paradigm shift that needs to take place in the suburbs for how they use water," said Howell, "but conservation alone won't furnish the need."
Environmental groups that fought the LCRA pipelines that were constructed along U.S. 290 into the Hill Country a decade or so ago see echoes in the current proposals. Save Our Springs Alliance executive director Bill Bunch said the utility wants more water to "grow an empire and expand their business."
But the board of the West Travis County agency, with Rauschuber's support, has pledged to apply to its entire service area a 2000 agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the LCRA that limits asphalt and rooftop development in the region.
In an early test, that agreement is at play as the West Travis agency grapples with providing water to proposed subdivisions along Hamilton Pool Road.
"We have an obligation to provide water (in our service area)," said Rauschuber, "but not to the density requested by a developer."
The Public Utility Agency could choose a third option: to buy more raw water out of the Highland Lakes from the LCRA. But that would require an expensive upgrade to its pipes and a likely new water treatment plant.
Rauschuber estimated that new "wet water" is three to 10 years off.
"We're always planning way ahead about where that next drop of water is going to come from, whether it comes from Lake Travis or from a groundwater pipeline, or from conservation," he said.