It has been a full three days since HB 4 passed through the House Committee on Natural Resources on its way to a floor vote, and supporters of the measure are still hopped up about the possibility to implement a state water plan drafted by 16 regional stakeholder groups that would, among other measures, establish seed funding for a water infrastructure bank that would provide low-interest loans in support of water projects across the state.

The bill, if passed by the Texas House and Senate, would be the first major state legislation designed to offer funding for the development of water projects and plans in direct response to the state’s most serious drought of record and to address the future water needs of the public, agriculture and other industry.

If approved, the bill would provide $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to start a low-interest loan program for new water projects. Loan repayments would go back into the fund to further water project efforts statewide.

What started out as an 8-page bill was recently expanded to 31 pages which, among other things, increases the focus on water conservation as well as funding for new water projects. The plan requires that 20 percent of all funding support conservation programs and establish guidelines to make funding more readily available to water projects that also offer conservation strategies.

Critics of the bill warn that the proposed legislation supports water projects that can bring harm to the state’s rivers, streams and climate and fails to address water conservation adequately.

The Good, the bad and the ugly...

When 16 regional water concerns were voiced in a series of meetings last year, the basis of the State’s Water Plan was made known to the Texas Water Development Board, which subsequently adopted a Water Plan that included some 26 high priority projects, most of them involving the construction of surface water reservoirs. Rounding out the list were a few groundwater and desalination projects.

While catching and storing water in reservoirs is one way to increase the state’s water capacity in the future, it comes with a price tag that goes beyond dollars and cents. Evaporation, water quality concerns and climate considerations surfaced as well as possible objections to the plan, one that seems to take a lot of the bang out of the buck. When environmental groups reviewed the short list of water projects proposed under the state’s first water plan, they found it short on conservation efforts, a measure they claim would be the best strategy of all, an effort that would conserve as much water as new water projects would provide. Conservation efforts, they claim, are much cheaper to implement as well.

In addition, most water projects adopted as part of a list of the high priority projects in the state water plan are for the direct benefit of cities and urban areas and would provide little help to agriculture or industry. In fact, the most expensive project on the list calls for $1.8 billion to construct a pipeline to South Texas for municipal water use in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The second priciest project on the list involves a $700 million-plus plan to buy irrigation water from South Texas for municipal use in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, mostly to facilitate landscape irrigation.

The Texas Water Development Board confirmed that some households in the Fort Worth area have provided irrigation of landscaped yards through the winter months in spite of the drought. In 2011, the state’s driest year on record, much of Fort Worth’s public water, estimated 45 percent, went to landscape watering. By contrast, the City of San Antonio estimated 25 percent of public water was used for watering and landscape purposes for the same period.

The overall accumulated funding needed to support the 26 projects is estimated to be about $8 billion.

Farmers and ranchers across Texas say so far there has been very little consideration for substantial relief for agriculture under the state water plan. The best solid plan so far (SB 22) has been offered by State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, who wants 10 percent of the fund to go toward conservation and another ten percent to be directed toward rural areas.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said he wanted to prioritize funds to those agencies who are using water wisely.

“We want to make sure that projects we are going to fund use this money on maximizing conservation efforts,” Larson said. “If not, then why would we fund them?”

“Conservation is the most environmentally responsible path towards meeting our future water needs, [and] often the cheapest,” Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, emailed in a statement last week. “The Texas Water Development Board should make sure we exhaust our potential to save water and set aside at least half of funding for conservation and re-use programs, reducing water loss, and to purchase water rights to guarantee we leave enough water in our rivers to protect wildlife and recreation.”

Praying for rain

Climatologists have warned that Texas could be in the midst of a drought worse than the drought of record. In 2011, the months from March through May, and then June through August set records for low rainfall. The high temperatures over the summer months increased evaporation, further lowering river and lake levels.

The year 2011 was the driest year in Texas with an average of less than 15 inches of rain. The only comparable drought occurred during the 1950s, but no single year during that drought was as dry as 2011. The current drought began in October, 2010, and continued through 2011. Though conditions improved in the winter and spring of 2012, by late in the year dry conditions had returned.

As of late January this year, 90 percent of Texas is in some form of drought and the state’s reservoirs are only 65 percent full. Nearly 7 percent of the state is in “exceptional” drought.

Climatologists also warn that periods of sustained drought have a much greater effect on the state than most realize. In addition to water shortages for human, industrial and agricultural use, floral and fauna of the affected drought area suffers greatly. High reductions in wildlife are possible as a result of a lack of drinking water. In addition, millions of native trees will be destroyed by serious drought, never to recover.

While no one wants to hear of a potential negative forecast or measurable rain, meteorologists are warning that if unpredictable summer rains fail to develop and a La Niña weather pattern returns in the fall of 2013, it could result in dire conditions for Texas and the greater Southwest.

 

 

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