Within days of the announcement earlier this year that the state legislature could get serious about funding new water projects in Texas, folks started having questions. Where will that money go? Why not make more of the water we have instead of building more reservoirs? And what’s to prevent the proposed $2 billion ‘water bank’ from suffering the same problems and controversies as other state funds have?
A partial, preliminary (and perhaps even premature) answer came this week after an open records request by the Associated Press. They asked to see a list of prioritized water projects from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), the same list that State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horshoe Bay, Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, recently complained about not being able to get from the board. It was drawn up at the request of Fraser, and lists projects that are most likely to be ready and of a higher priority.
Texas faces the conundrum of a rapidly growing population, with increased water demands, in the face of falling water supplies and hotter, drier weather. How to ensure the state has enough water going forward has been one of the key issues this legislative session.
Environmental groups looked at the list this week and quickly became concerned that it emphasized building new water supplies over conservation.
The list (which, again, is preliminary) has some 26 projects on it, most of them surface reservoirs, with some groundwater and desalination projects, with an overall price tag of over $8 billion. Most of those projects would benefit cities. The priciest project on the list is a $1.8 billion pipeline to bring water from existing reservoirs to Dallas and Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is. (That price tag is more than double the amount of the next most expensive project, a $703 million dollar plan to buy irrigation water in South Texas for municipal use.) Dallas-Fort Worth is also an area of the state that has some of the highest water use in the state when it comes to landscaping.
According to a report by the TWDB, ”during particular years, some households in the Fort Worth area have been observed leaving their automatic sprinkler systems on and watering during the winter months.” From 2004 to 2011, the report says, outdoor watering (mostly landscaping) made up 37 percent of Fort Worth’s water use. In 2011 alone, the driest year in recorded Texas history (and one of the hottest), outdoor watering went up to 45 percent of Fort Worth’s water use. Dallas uses even more water for landscaping, with outdoor watering making up 41 percent of their water use during the 2004-2011 period. San Antonio, by contrast, often cited as the poster child for municipal conservation, had only 25 percent of their water go towards outdoor use during that time.
“We recognize that TWDB developed a list of potential priority water projects based on specific assumptions provided by legislative offices requesting such a list and may not reflect the agency’s perspective,” Ken Kramer, Water Resources Chair, Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in an emailed statement. “Moreover, the projects identified are those in the current state and regional water plans, which are undergoing revision. That revision should put a higher priority on meeting actual water needs and not unjustified water demands, should emphasize conservation over infrastructure, and should address environmental flow needs.”
State Sen. Fraser has filed a bill in the Senate, SB 22, that would take $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to start a ‘water bank,’ which would provide revolving loans to new water projects. His bill mandates that ten percent of the fund go towards conservation projects, while another ten percent be directed towards rural areas.
A companion bill in the house, HB 11, filed by House Natural Resources Chair Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, would do much the same, but calls for twenty percent of the funding going towards conservation, and doesn’t direct that the money specifically go towards rural projects.
While there are $8 billion in ‘priority’ projects at the moment, and only $2 billion for the fund, it’s important to remember that the fund is being proposed as a revolving loan bank. Principal and interest will be paid back by the projects, which will provide ongoing revenue to the bank. In essence, $2 billion in seed money today can equal the $27 billion needed in state funding for water projects over the next fifty years.
The water bank proposed by the legislature still has some specifics to be worked out. In a panel hosted by StateImpact Texas in January, State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, said that the legislature wanted to see money go towards those who are using water wisely.
“We want to make sure that those areas that we are going to focus using this money [on] are maximizing their conservation efforts,” Larson said. “If they’re not, then why would we build something, and those folks aren’t saving the water they have already?”
On the list released this week, conservation makes up about three percent of the funding for the priority projects, according to Environment Texas.
But there are projects on the priority list that would make more of the water we already have, like $302 million for a water reuse project in Austin and a $175 million project in South Texas for “non-potable reuse.” Projects to reduce water losses in irrigation conveyance (how water is distributed to agriculture) make up another $280 million. Also on the list was $1.2 million in municipal conservation projects for North Texas.
“Conservation is the most environmentally responsible path towards meeting out future water needs, but it’s also often the cheapest,” Luke Metzger, the Director of Environment Texas, emailed in a statement Thursday in response to the list of projects. “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.”