City's New Water Plan Leaves Local Cotton Industry High and Dry
SAN ANGELO, TX -- The City of San Angelo’s plan to flow treated wastewater down the Concho River then pump it back to the treatment plant comes at the expense of farmers who cultivate 10,000 acres of irrigated cotton fields in eastern Tom Green County.
For 20 years, farmers in the Tom Green County Water Control and Improvement District have traded the rights to 25,000 acre feet of fresh water in Twin Buttes Reservoir to the City in exchange for 100 percent of the wastewater. When the city takes the wastewater away, those irrigated fields will be left dry each year unless Twin Buttes reaches 50,000 feet of capacity, then the farmers will have the opportunity to irrigate with fresh water once again. Even with recent rains, Twin Buttes is only at 25,425 acre feet this year.
In 1998, the city and the district signed an agreement swapping the wastewater for fresh water in Twin Buttes. The city at the time was under orders from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to stop running its wastewater on the 400 acre city farm off of FM380 along the Concho River because the wastewater was flowing into the Concho River and polluting it. The contract between the city and the farmers in the district conserved water in Twin Buttes for the citizens of San Angelo and provided irrigation water for the cotton farms.
A call to the irrigation district office in Veribest for a comment on this story went unanswered. The district door was locked and no one was there Wednesday morning.
The irrigation canal system was built as part of the Bureau of Reclamation's San Angelo Project which includes Twin Buttes Reservoir. Construction began in 1960 and was completed in 1963 according to the district's website. It took nine years for Twin Buttes to fill up enough for farmers to have irrigation water. The first water used from the reservoir for irrigation was in 1972.
The Bureau of Reclamation owns Twin Buttes Reservoir and the irrigation canal system. The city of San Angelo operates Twin Buttes and the district operates and maintains the irrigation canal system.
Farmers in the district pay an annual assessment to repay the Bureau of Reclamation for construction of canal system and they also pay an annual property tax for operation and maintenance whether they have irrigation water or not.
In 2010, the irrigation district produced 43 percent of the irrigated cotton in Tom Green County providing jobs for hundreds of farmers and farm workers.
The cotton is also processed at cotton gins in Tom Green County providing hundreds of jobs there as well. Farmers have millions of dollars in irrigation and farming equipment which will go unused every year the district doesn’t have any irrigation water.
Farmers in the district have very few options when it comes to replacing the wastewater for irrigation. All water wells used in farming are metered and monitored by the Lipan-Kickapoo Water Conservation District which regulates water wells in Tom Green County. Each of those wells is only allowed to use pump groundwater based historic use, so farmers won’t be able to pump additional water from wells to replace the irrigation water lost when the city begins its new plan. The only other option is to wait until Twin Buttes Reservoir has enough water to again provide fresh water for irrigation of the cotton fields in the district.
This story is one in a series on the economic and social impact of the city's new plan turn treated wastewater into tap water.