From the ground up, regional water groups in Texas plan ahead October 2014

In 1997, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) launched a new process for creating the state water plan. As referenced in TWDB's September feature story, the water planning process from 1957 to 1997 started at the top and trickled its way down to the regional and local level. Then, in 1997, the 75th Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 1 (SB1), reversing the process to start with input at the regional level, strategizing from the ground up.

As a result, 16 regional water planning areas across the state were established, each with its own water planning group to develop that regionís specific water plan for the next 50 years. Every five years, plans from the 16 regional water areas are compiled into the official state water plan. The last state water plan was published in 2012, so the regional planning groups are currently in the midst of preparing their regional plans to submit for the next state water plan, to be published by January 2017.

"Engaging regional groups across the state from the beginning of the process was an important shift in the history of Texas water planning," says TWDB Board Member Bech Bruun. "After visiting each of the 16 regions this year, I'm proud to have seen firsthand the work they do to make our state water plan a comprehensive roadmap that is more in tune to the current and future needs of our fellow Texans and more beneficial to every city, town, and community in Texas."

Each regional planning group, by law, must include members that represent the interests of counties, municipalities, industries, agriculture, environment, small business, electric-generating utilities, river authorities, water districts, water utilities, groundwater management areas, and the public. These regional groups, usually consisting of about 20 members, are responsible for developing strategies to meet potential water shortages should another drought of record occur, so the membership of the groups was designed to take into account the needs of all regional interests during the planning process.

The strategies (known as water management strategies in the regional and state water plans) included in the regional water plans are informed by the comparison of future water demands (based on population projections) with existing water supplies for more than 3,000 different water user groups. Each specific group, whose water use ranges from municipal to industrial to rural populations, is planned for individually. The comparison reveals where or when there will be a surplus or shortage and dictates how the region should plan for entities in those scenarios. From there, potential strategies emerge.

"The amount of detail that goes into evaluating the needs of every water user group in our state is immense and vital to the regional planning process," says TWDB Board Member Kathleen Jackson. "The dedication to this process shown by the regional water planning groups and our TWDB staff is a true demonstration of our Texas work ethic."

The process for determining the best water plan for a region includes numerous evaluations and comparisons. Once the data and strategies are recommended, the planning group drafts an Initially Prepared Plan (IPP) which, this planning cycle, is due to the TWDB on May 1, 2015. Around the time the IPP is submitted, each planning group holds a public hearing on their draft plan and then hosts a public comment period for the following 30 days which allows the public to voice feedback and the regional water planning groups to make changes. Final plans are due by November 2, 2015, for consideration by the TWDB for inclusion in the 2017 State Water Plan.

Many opportunities for the public to contribute to the regional water planning process exist in the five-year water planning cycle. The water planning groups hold regular meetings, generally once a quarter, that include a dedicated time for public comments. If an individual is interested in a topic relevant to the planning group as a whole, there is also the option to contact the administrator and chairman of the water planning group to request a spot on the formal agenda. Additionally, anyone may request to be added to the group mailing list to ensure that they are alerted to all planning group activities.

"Get involved, and get involved as soon as you can," says TWDB Chairman Carlos Rubinstein. "Greater participation from the public and all regional interests makes for better water planning and a better future for all Texans."

The window of time for making an impact in the regional planning process often depends on the stage of the five-year planning cycle. Currently, for the 2017 State Water Plan, the window of time for major suggestions is narrowing. The new funding program for state water plan projects becomes available next year, so it is crucial that communities ensure their needed strategies are included in their regional water plan as soon as possible.

However, regional planning in Texas is always moving forward, which means getting a foot in the door for the 2022 State Water Plan is just around the corner!

For more on the regional water planning process or to find your regional water planning group's next meeting, please visit the regional water planning schedule.

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