Significant new funding for water projects in a dry, thirsty Texas moved one step closer to becoming a reality today. The bill, HB 4, would take money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to start a loan program for new water projects. It passed unanimously in a committee, and now it heads to the House floor for a vote. (From there? Well, it’s probably a good time to brush up on how a bill becomes a law, or just watch the classic video.)
The bill’s latest version (which isn’t available online yet) that passed today is much more detailed, going from eight pages to 31, and puts added focus on conservation. As before, 20 percent of the funding would go towards conservation projects. But it also includes conservation as a factor for water supply projects that want funding from the new program. “There was a lot of detail added to this bill,” Laura Huffman, Texas State Director of the Nature Conservancy, tells StateImpact Texas. “They’ve put in place a prioritization scheme that would ask utilities and the state agency to prioritize those projects that have good conservation plans that are implemented. Not just talked about, but implemented.”
Huffman also applauded a stipulation that utilities with good conservation programs would get premium interest rates for loans from the water bank. “That would include things like low per capita water use, low water losses,” she says. “Those kind of indicators that show a utility is really functioning at the highest level.”
But other environmental groups say it isn’t enough.
“Like most water issues, this is a case of a glass half full and a glass half empty,” Luke Metzger of Environment Texas said in an emailed statement. “On the one hand, the bill would support a major boost in funding for water conservation and re-use. On the other, the bill directs 80 percent of the funding towards projects that can harm our rivers, streams and climate.” Metzger’s group is concerned that the bill doesn’t consider potential environmental impacts of new projects like major reservoirs.
The bill calls for $2 billion in seed funding for a water infrastructure bank that would provide low-interest loans to water projects. (Here’s more about a preliminary list of some of the priority projects that could be up for funding first.) The repayment of the loans (plus interest) would go back into the fund, and then it would be spent on more water projects.
While conservation has been one area of concern as the funding bill moves forward, so has prioritization. The fund would take projects from the state’s Water Plan (a grab-bag of projects submitted by 16 regional groups), but there is no clear direction on how to prioritize them. “It’s like my kids Christmas list,” State Sen. Hegar said at a Monday hearing of the Senate version of the water funding bill. “Some items are gonna make and others aren’t gonna make.”
“In the wisdom of legislature, they said any plan that is going to be considered has to be in the Water Plan,” State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, replied. “There are plans on there that may not happen, but they [regional groups] wanted to get on [the plan] just in case.” Fraser chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which is hearing the senate version of the water funding bill, SB 4, that Fraser authored. That bill is still pending in committee.
With the passage of the House bill out of committee, however, the prospects for a real plan to fund new water projects in Texas has moved a significant step forward. “It’s a good day,” Huffman says. “Texas has been talking about a water plan for many, many years. In the wake of the drought last year, I think everyone understands that we’re simply going to have to find ways to solve our water supply problem by using less of it.”
It isn’t clear when it will be up for a floor vote, or if this will even end up being the final version of what gets passed (the legislature could end up going with the Senate version), but what is clear from today’s vote is that there’s a real chance significant funding going forward.