Business Expanding

Central Texas must adapt as business expansion, water demand grows

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More companies are expanding in Central Texas, bringing more people and more demand on the area’s resources. The growth is raising concern about the strain on the water supply.

Tesla opened a new automotive manufacturing facility, Gigafactory Texas, in April. Social media companies such as Meta and TikTok have leased spaces downtown, where Google is also finishing construction on a new high rise. Last year, Samsung Electronics announced it would expand in Central Texas with the construction of a semiconductor factory in Taylor, and incentive applications filed in July indicated it’s considering even more growth here.

In June, Austin entered Stage 1 drought restrictions, brought on by low water levels in Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan. 

“We’re going through pretty intense heat waves … the temperatures are higher than they usually are, at this time of the year. We’ve also not seen a lot of rain lately. And those things combined have made it not great for our water resources here in Central Texas, specifically in Austin,” said Dr. Yael Glazer, a research assistant at UT Austin in the Webber Energy Group. “We’re in drought conditions for sure.”

The Lower Colorado River Authority, or LCRA, manages water from the Highland Lakes for the state of Texas. If drought conditions continue to worsen, the LCRA restricts the amount of water that is provided to different “tiers” of customers. 

“We’re (the city of Austin) going to get water no matter what,” Colorado River Conservancy project manager Paul DiFiore said. “The rice farmers downstream, who are closer to the Gulf Coast, are big consumers of water … they will be restricted in times of severe drought from receiving their normal allotment of water from the Highland Lakes in Colorado.” 

The Colorado River Conservancy is a group dedicated to protecting and preserving the Lower Colorado River.

Central Texas residents and businesses may not run out of water, but there is an increased demand for water resources caused by factory demand, population growth and the added pressure of climate change

“As we grow (in) population, we’re going to see the levels in that lake (Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis) go up and down much more than we have in the past, although they will go lower than we’ve seen in the past as we grow into fully using that supply of water,” said Meadows Center for Water and the Environment Executive director Robert Mace. The organization incorporates research, leadership, education and stewardship of water.

Austin does have a plan for the future of water, the Water Forward Plan, which provides strategies on preserving water resources by reuse and conservation. Austin Water said in a statement its plan includes projections for population and sectors for the future, but does not specifically predict industry movement, such as tech companies moving into Austin. 

“Water Forward’s baseline water demand projection does include increases in demand in most sectors, including the tech/industrial use sector,” Austin Water Public Information Specialist Randall Mena said. “Water Forward Plan strategies, including water conservation and water reuse, are expected to help offset some of these potential future uses.” 

Samsung’s Taylor expansion brought forth a potential solution for the growing demands on water resources. The electronics company will not be under LCRA authority and isn’t an Austin Water customer. Instead, it will receive the millions of gallons of ultrapure water the factory requires from a town about 25 miles away. 

Samsung struck a deal with Canadian company EPCOR to outsource groundwater from Alcoa, a company town formerly owned and operated by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), according to a report from US News. ALCOA formerly owned 32,000 acres of land and groundwater rights, which it marketed off to different tenants, including Williamson County.

It’s not said whether EPCOR will provide water for other Samsung expansions or other companies hoping to make a move to Austin. 

Experts say the best solution for the future of Austin water is further investment in the city’s water infrastructure. The executive director of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network, Perry Fowler, said that Austin Water is doing a good job of diversifying water resources, but there needs to be an investment and expansion of infrastructure within the city. 

“I think there are a lot of people … that are doing the right things from a policy perspective,” Fowler said. “If you’re able to develop additional supplies, and to fortify your infrastructure and ensure that it’s efficient and working properly so that you’re not losing water unnecessarily.” 

Further investment in infrastructure could resemble an increase in pipelines and purple piping systems that transport reusable water and investments in more roads and electrical systems.

Fowler said if adequate water resources did not exist, tech companies would not consider moving to Central Texas. 

“When a community really mobilizes behind the need to develop good water infrastructure … it’s going to allow you to have the economic benefit of these industrial kinds of users coming in,” Fowler said.  “I think we are making some progress, but we certainly need more investment there.”

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