If you happened to be in Austin last Monday, you may have noticed a sight that would have been strangely unfamiliar just two years ago: three Republican state lawmakers, calling in unison for more spending, higher prices and more restrictions for water.
It represents a real about-face for the Republican majority in Texas. Last legislative session, the focus was on cutting spending and abortion and immigration, but not water. Despite dry times in 2009, with extreme drought in parts of the state, and the onset of the record one-year drought in the fall of 2010, in the last legislative session, lawmakers took little action on building new water supplies and encouraging conservation. It wasn’t for the want of trying by some legislators, like State Representative* Allan Ritter (R-Nederland), who pushed to get money for the state’s Water Plan. But that bill didn’t pass. The only major water bill that passed last session, on groundwater rights for private property owners, may have actually made things worse.
In the meantime, the state’s de facto water policy became ‘Pray for Rain.’
In April 2011, before the 82nd session had ended, Texas Governor Rick Perry responded to the devastating West Texas wildfires, which had by then burned 8,000 acres and some 400 homes, by issuing a proclamation for three days of prayer. By the end of that year, Texas had experienced its driest one-year period in recorded history. A record number of homes and Texas land was burned, and the state suffered nearly $8 billion in agricultural losses.
Now the Texas legislature seems poised to act. But at a panel on water issues hosted by StateImpact Texas in Austin last week, a few Republican lawmakers cautioned that more than new reservoirs are needed. They said Texans will need to use less water, and at the same time pay more for it.
“As a society, Texans, the day is upon us where we have to appreciate what it truly means to have conservation, in our homes and in our yards” said State Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy). He recalled heading out to his farm a few years ago during Tropical Storm Allison, when his rain gauge was overflowing, and seeing his neighbors’ sprinklers running amid the deluge. “It doesn’t make sense,” Hegar said.
“I think one of the least talked-about parts of this puzzle is that we as a state have historically not valued water as a resource,” Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) said. He pointed out that while a barrel of oil has a well-known commoditized price and supply chain, the same is not true for water. “Historically, it’s something that has flowed from God, we accumulate it in reservoirs, and then we take it out, treat it and distribute it,” Darby said.
Darby decided to look at water rates in Texas versus the rest of the country, and found something interesting. “West Texas has some of the lowest water rates,” Darby said. “Today, it’s … $1.86 for a thousand gallons of water. So we are undervaluing that resource in our community and as a state.”
He added that all the cheap, plentiful water has already been found. “Now we’re going to have to find water resources and alternatives that are going to be far more expensive. So it’s going to be incumbent … water is going to have to be valued at its true value and not simply as a free resource from the Good Lord,” Darby said. He acknowledged that this would be a “difficult and painful” position for politicians, but said it’s a necessary one.
Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) called for a cultural shift combined with more watering restrictions, citing the example of the arid city of El Paso, which has year-round limits on landscape irrigation. While Larson’s own water system of San Antonio has been lauded for its conservation efforts, it still doesn’t have year-round mandatory watering restrictions. The City told him it couldn’t afford it. “And that’s the big issue in Houston and a lot of communities,” Larson said, “because they have projects they’ve sold bonds to, and they have to secure revenue to pay off the bonds. We’ve got to fix that.”
Hegar echoed that concern. “The time when you need to conserve the most is the biggest revenue generator,” Hegar said. “The fundamental philosophical dynamic is absolutely turned upside down.”