Considering the Source

December 19, 2005

Abe Flores is the former mayor of Whitney, a community 45 miles northwest of Waco with about 2,000 residents in the off-season. In the summer, the population explodes to 10,000 or more as visitors pour into the area to enjoy fishing, swimming and boating on Lake Whitney, a 23,500-acre reservoir built in 1951 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide for flood run-off and recreation. And although water is the draw to the community, it is also the town's biggest problem.
Our resources were so stressed that one of our three wells had been shut down," says Flores, who now serves on the city's water committee. "That year, we noticed that we had to go an additional 80 feet down to maintain the city's water. The need for bringing in water hit me. I thought, 'We are in a crisis.'"
Lake Whitney is a major reservoir among the 94 in the state, but the salinity (saltiness) of its water is too high for human consumption. Or, at least, that has been the accepted view based on previous testing. Now, however, a team of aquatic scientists from Baylor and other Texas universities is taking a second, harder look at the feasibility of making Lake Whitney's water drinkable. 
"It's a multifaceted challenge, but the potential is there," says John Dunbar, associate professor of geology at Baylor. "If there were a way to add to our water supply inventory, it would be a great gain, so that's what we're trying to do."
As never before, Baylor is in a position to make significant contributions to the challenge of water resource conservation and management. Baylor's researchers join other universities, river authorities and state and federal agencies in the important work of preserving and managing the world's most precious natural resource.
"What Baylor adds to it is a team of scientists who can look at this issue from rigorous scientific perspectives such as toxicology, hydrology, modeling, plankton dynamics, fisheries," says Robert Doyle, BS '81, MS '85, who holds a doctorate from the University of Maryland at College Park. Doyle is director of Baylor's Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research (CRASR) and chair of the biology department.
In the Lake Whitney project, Baylor's reservoir center, working in conjunction with the University's Center for Applied Geographic and Spatial Research (CAGSR) and others, will conduct a two- to three-year feasibility study. This will include extensive testing of saline levels across the lake at different times of the year, geographic information systems (GIS) watershed modeling and environmental impact studies. This research will inform the state as to whether it is feasible, and practical from a cost perspective, to go forward with a water treatment facility to convert the lake's contents into drinkable water.
"One of Baylor's strengths is that we have a broad group of scientists to address a broad number of problems," Doyle says. "The Lake Whitney project could never have happened with one scientist sitting alone in a lab having a good idea."
Water needs
Texas, which only has one natural lake (Caddo in the northeast corner of the state), has considered adding as many as 18 reservoirs, but because of political and environmental concerns, only three to five are being considered seriously, says Dunbar, who has bachelor's and master's degrees from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin.
"The overall issue is that Texas has, more or less, used all of the groundwater supplies it has available," he says. The choice, then, is to turn to the few other options that still are available, all of which utilize surface water supplies, such as reservoirs. 
Adding to the urgency of finding more usable water is the exploding population of the state. Population projections show that by 2060, Texas will be at 45.5 million, more than double the 2000 total of 20.8 million, according to the Texas Water Development Board.
Building new reservoirs is an expensive and lengthy process. At least three new reservoirs have been proposed in recent years in North Texas to serve the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The largest of these, the Marvin Nichols Reservoir on the Sulphur River, would cost an estimated $1.7 billion and cover 72,000 acres. Additionally, Marvin Nichols is a controversial proposition, tapping into issues of eminent domain and environmental concerns. In comparison, early estimates of the Lake Whitney project fall between $21.4 million and $83.4 million, depending on whether a reverse osmosis facility, which is much more expensive, is recommended.
"It is much cheaper to make use of an existing reservoir than to build a new one," says James Odom, BA '94, director of public affairs at Baylor who works with local, state and federal governments. "Construction of a reservoir is a very difficult proposition that doesn't happen quickly. From a timing and cost-benefit analysis, it's much easier to tap into an existing source."
A perfect fit
Bruce Byars, BA '93, MA '95, and Lisa Zygo, BS '97, MS '99, both research associates with the geographic and spatial research center, initially had met with then-Mayor Flores while Zygo was leading a group of students on a GIS mapping project for the city of Whitney. 
"Bruce came and asked if we should do an assessment of Lake Whitney as a potential drinking water reservoir," Doyle says. "Understanding the underlying dynamics of our reservoirs and how to make best use of that resource allows us to make better choices."
Odom, who has a master's degree from Georgetown University, and Truell Hyde, MS '80, PhD '88, vice provost for academic affairs and research at Baylor, saw the Lake Whitney project as a perfect undertaking for the University's emerging water quality center. The center's multiple research projects focus on various types of aquatic environments including lakes and reservoirs, rivers and wetlands. Researchers associated with the center have generated more than $2 million in external funding since it was established in 2003. 
"My opinion has always been that we can't be an A&M or a UT, and that we don't want to be," Hyde says. "We can't go out and hire 100 faculty and then build our reputation. We should determine where we have areas of interdisciplinary strength, and water quality is one of those areas. It's progress that fits who Baylor is."
Finding funding for the project was the next challenge. It helped Baylor that its congressional representative, Chet Edwards, is a senior member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. Both he and U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of the 6th District (in the Dallas-Fort Worth area) showed interest in the Lake Whitney project, as did Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
"Water will be to Texas in the 21st century what oil was in the 20th century," Edwards says. "Protection of our water resources is vital. This important research effort at Baylor will invest in our future and help protect economic growth."
Initial funding of $400,000 was appropriated by Congress through the 2005 Consolidated Appropriations Act to begin water quality assessment at Lake Whitney based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. In August 2005, the president signed the 2006 Interior Appropriations bill, which included an additional $200,000 to continue work at the reservoir. Edwards also has designated $500,000 for the project under the 2006 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which has passed the House and Senate and is being finalized in a conference committee between the two chambers.
"If you can turn Lake Whitney into drinkable water, it can serve as an emergency supply for Waco and Dallas-Forth Worth," says Hyde, adding that it also can provide a backup in the case of bioterrorism. "It's not only that Texas needs more available water; it's also a homeland defense issue."
Doyle says there's no doubt the water in Lake Whitney can be desalinized; ultimately, it's more an issue of cost. The initial work in determining the feasibility is being done in Baylor's geology department, where both Dunbar and Peter Allen, MS '72, who has a doctorate from SMU, "believe there is a real potential in developing some data that would lead to better understanding of the salinity dynamics in Whitney," Doyle says. "That will be the fundamental parameter to decide how the reservoir's water will ultimately be used."
The research
Baylor's aquatic center boasts an experienced team of chemists, biologists, environmental scientists and geospatial researchers. "Most cutting-edge research now occurs at the boundaries of disciplines," Hyde says. "This team is very comfortable with that. They're wonderful researchers and wonderful teachers, eager to include undergraduate and graduate students."
They are working in collaboration with researchers from SMU, Texas A&M and University of North Texas on the first phase of the project - a comprehensive geophysical, chemical and biological assessment of the reservoir, a combined study known as limnology. 
Dunbar, who often works with the Texas Water Development Board, is helping provide a "better, higher-resolution map of the salinity levels in the lake," he says. "We want to understand the seasonal and spatial elements in salinity - what controls it, how is it changing through time, what are the fresher areas."
Doyle says Dunbar is developing some exciting new methods to conduct these assessments. "He has proposed some really clever technologies. One tool uses sonar to probe the bottom of the lake as he drives across it," Doyle says. "It's kind of like an ultra-sophisticated depth-finder system. Another tool looks at the electric current flowing through water to assess the salinity."
Researchers in the geographic and spatial research center are modeling watershed and lake processes and generating GIS maps. These will help the scientists predict future stream flow, sediment and nutrient loads and determine best-case management scenarios for water quality in the lake.
"We'll also see how landscape management practices will affect the water getting to folks," says Shane Prochnow, MS '01, PhD '05, a research associate on the project. "That's important because the loading of nutrients and sediment derived from the watershed affects the type of algae that flourish in a lake environment."
The second component of the feasibility study will look at how the salinity affects bacterial populations in the water and organisms, such as golden algae, says environmental toxicologist Bryan Brooks, assistant professor of environmental studies, who has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Mississippi and a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Based on one-day counts in Lake Whitney last February, an estimated 4.9 million fish -- the majority threadfin shad -- were lost in that week alone because of golden algae, according to a report from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 
"Texas has a number of harmful algal blooms, but golden algae stands out - it's one of the most devastating toxins I've seen in nature," Brooks says. "We don't believe it has an impact on humans, but it's still too soon to call."
All of this information is vital in deciding whether -- and how -- to proceed with the Whitney conversion. It also lends to the wider body of knowledge on aquatics that will help determine the feasibility of other possible conversions. "The day is not far off when future growth in populations and the economy are going to depend on reliable water sources," Doyle says. "And understanding what we're up against in utilizing these slightly salty water resources will enable us to do a better job of managing those resources."
There are no easy solutions to Texas' growing water quality and management needs. "The solutions to these complex problems will come from coherent teams of scientists that appreciate the multifaceted challenge," Doyle says. "We [Baylor] now have sufficient breadth in aquatic expertise to address these ideas."
He is grateful that Congress has been willing to allocate money for the research. "Even if you have a good idea, the government doesn't give money to just anybody," Doyle says. "The energy for the Whitney project was building as our expertise was beginning to be recognized. It's what we envisioned when we brought together the aquatic center."
And although all the researchers would agree that it's the rigorous science of their work that motivates them, there also is another element at play - the mission of Baylor. "Baylor's mission is different," Doyle says. "We have a ministry-minded, people-focused mission. The water center fits that mission because understanding water resources and how to manage them is good, basic science, but it also has specific applicability in the lives of people.
"We'll stand toe-to-toe with anyone on the science of what we're doing," he says, "but the other part of it is that what we're doing here makes a real difference for people." -- Additional reporting by Judy Long