Update: Prop 6 passed. Read the full story here.
2011 was the driest year in Texas’ recorded history — crops failed, herds were sold off and lakes and reservoirs literally went dry. Some communities, like Spicewood Beach in the Hill Country or Robert Lee in West Texas, had to scramble to find new water supplies. And in the middle of this catastrophic drought, the state of Texas had one vocal strategy: Pray for rain. Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a proclamation that year asking Texans to pray for rain for three days.
Now, a few dry years and billions of dollars in drought losses later, the state has decided it needs a more consistent strategy to secure water. “We can’t make it rain,” Perry said at a recent event. “But we can take measures to extend our existing water supply and work to develop new supplies.” Perry was out stumping in support of Proposition 6, a state constitutional amendment on the ballot this year.
“What Prop 6 does is put in place 2 billion dollars so the state can lend money to utilities and cities that are seeking to do either conservation projects or new water supply projects,” says Laura Huffman, Texas state director for the Nature Conservancy.
That $2 billion would come from the state’s surpluses, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to create a fund for new water projects. It’s drawn widespread, bipartisan support, from businesses to environmental groups.
“What we like about Prop 6 is that it puts in place money, but it also puts in place some really nice policy, to make sure that the strategy we like best – conservation – becomes a focal point,” Huffman says. Under the new fund, conservation from cities and agriculture – making more of the water we already have – would have to make up nearly a third of the new water projects.
But not everyone is in favor of the amendment. One environmental group in Austin, the Save Our Springs alliance, is vocally against it. “Well, we see it as a call to voters who are very concerned about water to hit the panic button and spend a lot of money on something that will really make the problem worse,” says Bill Bunch, Executive Director with the Save Our Springs Alliance.
Bunch says that the water bank will fund projects like large reservoirs and pipelines for water-wasting customers in cities. That would further deplete the state’s water resources.
And some political groups are against it, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Republican comptroller candidate Debra Medina of We Texans. They say the state can’t afford to spend the money or provide effective oversight of it. Troubles with other state-managed funds, like the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), have caused some to worry that Texas’ water bank could become a billion-dollar boondoggle.
The state legislature had the opportunity this past session to fully fund the water bank without voter approval, but instead decided to leave the decision in hands of voters. An off-year election could put the initiative at risk of failure. During the last off-year election, in 2011, voter turnout was just over five percent. A year later, during the Presidential election of 2012, turnout was 59 percent. Unless the issue is a polarizing one, like the amendment to ban gay marriage in 2005 (with 18 percent voter turnout), voter turnout for constitutional amendments in Texas tends to be quite low.
“You’re always taking your chances when you go to the ballot with a constitutional amendment,” Ken Kramer, Water Resources Chair & Legislative Advisor, for the Sierra Club, said earlier this year. “They tend to pass, but not always.”
So what happens if Prop 6 doesn’t pass?
“If this doesn’t get approved, then the burden will fall to utilities. Local utilities will have to absorb the full brunt of the cost of these projects. But also the cost of creative solutions like conservation,” says Huffman of the Nature Conservancy.
Voters have about ten days of early voting left to decide, and a full day at the ballot box November 5, election day.