July 01–The City of Odessa’s water supplier is preparing to double its groundwater holdings in a deal with University Lands intended to shore up water for the future.
Today, during a time of drought, the Colorado River Municipal Water District is supplying all of the water for Odessa and other cities through lakes that are around 18 percent full without having to tap its groundwater reserves.
But the University Lands deal, which CRMWD’s board is expected to approve in August, comes about two years after Odessa officials began working with a private company to secure a new water supply from the Fort Stockton ranch of oilman Clayton Williams.
Uncertainty still surrounds that prospect, and CRMWD’s pending deal signals the district is focused elsewhere when it comes to shoring up the water supply. The University Lands water is in Winkler County, near other reserves of the district.
“It doubles our groundwater holdings; it’s right there by our infrastructure, so it’s something we would have in reserve,” CRMWD General Manager John Grant said. “We’ll be able to use for the future.”
CRMWD’s groundwater is meant to provide relief in a drought and the district says it could cover water demand with its current reserves.
Averaged throughout the years, Odessa uses about 16 million gallons of water a day. The district pumps about 56 million gallons of water a day from lakes.
CRMWD — before the University Lands deal — has about 46,000 acre feet per year in surplus water (one acre foot equals about 325,851 gallons).
A study showed more than 2.1 million acre-feet of water on the University Lands property, which is more than what the district already has in Winkler and Ward counties. The district would pay for the new water only if it started pumping it, under a 30-year lease that can be renewed.
Odessa started searching for additional water in Fort Stockton after a drought that started in 2011 and forced CRMWD to restrict deliveries for the first time in six decades. Soaring rates and public outcry followed.
CRMWD opted for a different route than what the Odessa officials, who represent the district’s largest customer, wanted.
The district said the problem wasn’t a lack of water but an inability to pump enough of it at the time. The district responded to the drought by building a pipeline to recently acquired groundwater supplies purchased in Ward County. Factoring in costs of the delivery system, the investment in the new supply totaled about $225 million.
That water has never been tapped, and water usage by Odessa and other cities in the district has fallen since then under pressure from rates.
An attempt by Odessa officials to secure water through a deal with the City of Fort Stockton collapsed after the city paid $817,000 to drill a test well.
An uncertainty still surrounds the latest proposal to draw water from the area.
The company that began marketing the Fort Stockton water to Odessa, Republic Water Company of Texas, is suing the Williams family’s Fort Stockton Holdings after an arrangement between the two fell through last year. And a separate lawsuit by another landowner is also challenging the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District’s decision to grant the Williams family the ability to pump the water.
Aside from the litigation, CRMWD officials say there has not been any progress with the Williams family for the water, which is prized for its quality and for the natural replenishment in the aquifer it draws from.
“You don’t want to go down there and do something rash and end up in litigation,” said Dan Hollmann, an attorney who is one of Odessa’s four representatives on the CRMWD board. “It’s not that we are not doing anything, it’s that you have to do in a right and prudent way.”
Historically, CRMWD invested in groundwater only when it could buy the water in place and keep it as a backup supply — something Fort Stockton Holdings was not considering in discussions with city and water district officials, who wanted to avoid a take-or-pay arrangement that would require ratepayers to cover costs of water that isn’t being used.
The biggest water deal on the horizon for Odessa could have less to do with the water supply than the way the city treats the water it gets. In a bid to improve Odessa drinking water, which has a notoriously chalky taste, the city in 2016 commissioned a $2.5 million engineering study of the water treatment plant.
That included a pilot test at the plant for what could be a large scale reverse osmosis system. With needed repairs, the total cost of upgrades to the plant could be more than $100 million, according to preliminary estimates.
City Manager Michael Marrero said he expects the Odessa City Council will be able to take up proposals in August.
Whatever the city does, officials will have to determine how to pay for it. The city is armed with about $120 million that the city is expected to earn over the next 11 years by selling treated wastewater to the oil company Pioneer Natural Resources. Upgrades could also require debt or rate increases.
But Marrero said there would be clear benefits of the better treatment.
“For the average homeowner, your clothes will feel better when they are washed, your appliances will last longer,” Marrero said.
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