Lege starts tackling state water woes

Texas may not have much water or hope of seeing more in the forseeable future. But we do have plenty of oil. Tax revenue from the state’s oil and gas boom has filled up the government’s coffers and this week there was talk of tapping those funds to tackle Texas’ water woes.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Budget Transparency and Reform considered HB11, which would use $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to provide low-interest financing to local water infrastructure projects around the state. Those projects would be central to fulfilling the state’s water development plan while minimizing burden on ratepayers.

We have the cash available to establish this infrastructure bank that we know will work,” the bill’s author, Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland), told the committee. “The central goal is to do the state water plan.”

Kick-starting efforts by local utilities to tap new sources and expand their networks, the state would offer favorable financing to remove pressure on utilities to raise rates.

The lower the rate is for the [utility], the lower the rate the borrower will have to charge their customers,” said Heather Harwood of H2O for Texas. “The lower the rate is, the more money is going to stay in the pocket every customer in the state.”

The prospect of slowing down inevitable rate increases as parched communities build their water systems won the support of Kyle mayor Lucy Johnson. Her community is helping finance a $110 million project to expand access to the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer.

Kyle rate payers have already seen big increases in their rates,” Johnson told lawmakers. “And we will likely see another increase of 20 percent in the coming year.”

There was some sense, however, that it is futile to fight rate hikes.

Water in Texas has traditionally been undervalued,” Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) told the committee. “The days of cheap water are over.”

You'll of course remember that San Antonio Water System is among the utilities across the state raising rates this year. Nonetheless, the city won plaudits from environmental groups for its conservation efforts.

The great thing about conservation is that it is very quick and can address the state’s water needs very cheaply,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas when pointing to San Antonio’s restrictions. The region's longest drought in decades could push us into Stage 3 outdoor water restrictions for the first time ever by as early as May, SAWS announced this week.

Though supportive of HB11, environmental groups were quick to emphasize a nuanced response to the state’s drought.

Some of the projects in the state water plan have some serious environmental consequences,” Metzger said. He called on the State Water Development Board to investigate the full potential of water conservation efforts as the Public Utilities Commission had previously done for electricity conservation.

We would definitely like to know the possibilities for conservation,” Metzger said.

Our support for HB11 is because we think it is an important part of meeting our water infrastructure needs but it is not sufficient in addressing all our water needs,” said Ken Kramer, speaking for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Though a similar effort was quashed in 2011, HB11 appears set for passage with bipartisan support and willingness on the part of House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) to use the Rainy Day Fund to build water infrastructure.

We have never had the money in the rainy day fund like we do today,” Rep. Ritter said. “If we have to [fund this with] general revenue, it’s going to be way above $2 billion.” – Andrew Oxford

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