A native of the Texas Panhandle, Kent Satterwhite is only the second general manager in the more-than- 50‑year history of the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority (CRMWA). The CRMWA is situated in the Texas Panhandle and meets most of the raw water needs of its 11 member cities, which in turn serve nearly 600,000 people. In addition to providing surface water from its Lake Meredith Reservoir, CRMWA has perhaps the largest groundwater rights holdings in the nation, ensuring its viability far into the future.
In this interview, CRMWA General Manager Kent Satterwhite tells Municipal Water Leader about the authority’s history and services.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Kent Satterwhite: I’m originally from the Texas Panhandle. After high school, I left the the area to pursue a civil engineering degree with an emphasis in water resources at Texas A&M University. I got distracted along the way and came to own and operate an excavation company and later a swimming pool construction company. I ultimately earned my degree later in life and began looking for water-related jobs close back in the Texas Panhandle, where I had grown up and where my parents and in-laws lived. I began by contacting local groundwater districts and ended up talking to John Williams, CRMWA’s first general manager. I have been with the authority for 30 years now, and in 2001, I took over from him as general manager—the organization’s second.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about CRMWA’s history.
Kent Satterwhite: CRMWA was created to provide its member cities and the citizens of the Texas Panhandle and the South Plains a dependable and safe source of municipal and industrial water. This is a semiarid region, and prior to the creation of CRMWA, the communities here relied solely on water drawn from the Ogallala aquifer. The first well in the aquifer in this area was drilled in 1911, and by 1953, there were more than 25,000 wells. Because soil and climate conditions in this area are not conducive to significant recharge, they were draining the aquifer at an unsustainable rate. That led people to start thinking about a dependable alternative.
Municipal Water Leader: After that need was identified, how did CRMWA emerge, and what are its services today?
Kent Satterwhite: The period from the initial vision to the creation of a fully operational authority covered more than 15 years, beginning in the early 1950s and lasting to the late 1960s. This initiative was led by committed and forward-thinking individuals across a vast area. CRMWA itself was ultimately formed by the Texas Legislature, which allowed the 11 member cities of Amarillo, Brownfield, Borger, Lamesa, Levelland, Lubbock, O’Donnell, Pampa, Plainview, Slaton, and Tahoka to come together under this umbrella. Each member city has at least one director on CRMWA’s board, and those with a population of 10,000 or more have an additional seat. Today, our board of directors has 17 members.
CRMWA’s original project—building the Sanford Dam, which forms Lake Meredith, and a 358‑mile aqueduct— cost $84 million in the 1960s. The majority of this cost, aside from several million dollars that were tied to flood storage and recreational aspects of the project, was assigned to CRMWA’s 11 member cities and their approximately 600,000 residents. That debt was paid off in 1998.
I simply can’t overstate the importance of this water source for the region. Over the course of its history, it has saved about 3 million acre-feet of groundwater by supplying an alternative. Since the late 1990s, CRWMA has invested around $300 million in our groundwater project. The John C. Williams aqueduct and wellfield system was completed in 2001. Since then, we have increased our water rights holdings more than tenfold and doubled the size of our well production capacity. This project was developed to enhance water quality by blending groundwater with surface water and to serve as a backup supply in times of drought. Today, it is our main water supply.
Municipal Water Leader: Is the Ogallala aquifer the underlying source for your groundwater project?
Kent Satterwhite: Yes, it is. We have nearly a half a million acres of Ogallala groundwater rights, which are associated with about 26 million acre-feet of water. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the aquifer is, for all intents and purposes, nonrenewable in this region. Due to the arid nature of this area and the composition of the soil, there is only about a quarter inch of recharge each year. Almost any level of pumping from the aquifer causes the aquifer level to decline.
Municipal Water Leader: How many employees does CRMWA have?
Kent Satterwhite: Today, CRMWA has 44 employees, including people in the office doing things like billing and crews monitoring the dam, maintaining the aqueduct system, and conducting water level and water quality readings in the lake and the well field. We’re a pretty lean operation considering the vast territory and the considerable number of communities, businesses, and people we serve.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the distance from Lake Meredith to CRMWA’s farthest member community?
Kent Satterwhite: Brownfield and Lamesa are each about 240 miles south of our groundwater project. It’s a pretty good distance and traverses several different watersheds and river basins.
Municipal Water Leader: Has CRMWA been able to keep up with population growth in the area?
Kent Satterwhite: The original Bureau of Reclamation studies on Lake Meredith assumed that it would have a firm yield of 126,000 acre-feet. Today, we think that number is about 40,000 acre-feet. We’ve got excess capacity in the pipeline, to say the least, since it was designed with the 126,000 acre-foot figure in mind. That’s part of the reason that our more recent groundwater project made sense—we had that available capacity to provide water over a long distance.
Municipal Water Leader: Have CRMWA’s member communities continued to use water from the aquifer in addition to the water the authority provides?
Kent Satterwhite: Yes, they have continued to rely on the aquifer to supplement the water that CRMWA supplies, which covers approximately 70 percent of their overall needs—a little more or less than that, depending on the city. As I mentioned, CRMWA’s water portfolio does include some groundwater in addition to the water stored in Lake Meredith.
Municipal Water Leader: Have the periodic droughts in your area affected the level of Lake Meredith?
Kent Satterwhite: In 2000, the lake depth was about 96 feet. By 2012, it had lost 96 percent of its water volume and fallen to a depth of just 26 feet. It was astounding to see how vastly the surface area of the lake had diminished. In the ensuing years, drought conditions have improved, and we have enhanced our water management initiatives, including controlling saltcedar, a nonnative deciduous tree that consumes great amounts of water, and keeping the channel defined and clear to minimize evaporation and reduce the process of transpiration. As a result, the lake level today stands at 76 feet, so it has recovered significantly. Nevertheless, like I said, the lake only has a firm yield of 40,000 acre-feet per year, and the reality is that we cannot even use that much due to its salinity. If we were to blend the full firm yield into our system today, the blended water would exceed the state’s secondary drinking water standards.
Municipal Water Leader: Why has Lake Meredith’s salinity increased?
Kent Satterwhite: Typically, lakes have levels of inflow that allow regular or constant flow-through; Lake Meredith does not. Because of our low inflows, we’ve never released water from Lake Meredith, except on one occasion when we were testing the gates. The only way water comes out of the lake is through our pumping and through natural evaporation. Currently, we’re pumping approximately 10,000 acre-feet and evaporating anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 acre-feet per year. As you know, when water evaporates, it leaves salt and other solid minerals behind, so the only way that we can get any of those minerals out is through pumping. However, because pumping more than 10,000 acre-feet makes the groundwater–surface water blend too salty, we are in a Catch‑22 situation.
Municipal Water Leader: Is any of the water from Lake Meredith available for direct irrigation, or is it reserved for your municipal members?
Kent Satterwhite: No; there is no irrigation pumping from the lake. The water is available for the exclusive use of our municipal members. CRMWA is responsible for maintaining the dam and delivery system infrastructure required to provide water to its members, who then determine how to allocate it among their respective residential and industrial consumers. When CRMWA was formed, the cities negotiated the percentage of the annual volume that each would be assigned. For the most part, those percentages have remained consistent, although when our groundwater project came online, Amarillo bought a small percentage of Pampa’s allocation.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about CRMWA’s groundwater rights.
Kent Satterwhite: We believe that CRMWA has more groundwater rights than any other entity in the nation. That puts this region in an excellent position going forward. We started off with 42,000 acres of groundwater rights, and our plan was to blend groundwater with water from Lake Meredith to overcome the salinity issues we had started to confront. However, around the time when that project came online, the lake levels started dropping drastically. Consequently, we were forced to start pumping the new well field tied to these groundwater rights at a much heavier rate than we initially anticipated. Simultaneously, the groundwater district started modifying its rules, largely because it had not previously been accustomed to an entity like ours operating at the level we were now having to operate at. To top it all off, competition for water rights began to emerge, mainly as a result of the businessman and financier T. Boone Pickens buying groundwater rights to resell to Dallas, San Antonio, and El Paso. These three major factors led CRMWA to the realization that it needed to expand its own portfolio of water rights to help sustain its future. In 2005 and 2006, CRMWA made substantial purchases of additional groundwater rights, and in 2011, we nearly doubled our portfolio with a purchase of rights from Mr. Pickens, effectively raising our total groundwater rights to nearly 500,000 acres. Today, we think we’re in a good spot. We’ll continue to focus on conservation and other approaches to enhance inflows to Lake Meredith. We believe that even if the lake were rendered unusable, these groundwater rights would provide us with 100–300 years of supply. However, the reality is that Lake Meredith will continue to provide water and the cities will get more efficient over the decades, so I can envision this groundwater lasting even longer.
Municipal Water Leader: What is CRMWA’s top issue today?
Kent Satterwhite: Without a doubt, infrastructure, and specifically, pipeline integrity. In late 2015 and again in early 2016, we experienced major blowouts of our 76‑inch pipeline. We started doing condition assessments of the pipeline by draining the system in sections and walking through the pipe with equipment that analyzes its condition, making notes of all the areas that showed significant corrosion. We’ve already dealt with the most substantial concerns, wrapping up that effort earlier this year. We will repeat an assessment of this level within a few years, focusing on the original sections of the pipe, particularly areas where we detected the beginning stages of corrosion during our first review. The situation with our smaller-diameter pipe is trickier. Some of our smaller-diameter pipe has been experiencing failures, but it is more difficult to assess—you can’t drain it and walk through it like you can with the large pipe. Some of this smaller-diameter pipe crosses naturally occurring salt areas in the southern part of the system and old oilfield-related salt on the northern end. We have had several corrosion-related failures on that pipe.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future?
Kent Satterwhite: We believe in CRMWA. Our member cities all get along and share a common objective that they are uniformly committed to. Our vision is established and shared by each of the member cities. We have taken major steps to ensure access to the water that is the underlying objective of that vision, and we are in the process of ensuring that our infrastructure remains able to effectively deliver on that vision. In the longer term, it will be important to continue expanding the wellfield and related pipeline infrastructure. That initiative will consist of doubling the size of the wellfield and extending another 70 miles of pipeline—a project estimated to cost $250–$350 million dollars. This project is scheduled for later this decade, though circumstances could always alter that timeline. At any rate, looking back on the history of CRMWA’s success and considering the member cities’ commitment to the mission and the dedication of our board and our employees, I have every confidence that we will collectively continue to successfully fulfill CRMWA’s mission.
Ken Satterwhite is the general manager of the Canadian River Municipal Water Agency. For more information on CRMWA, visit crmwa.com.