Will Texas Lawmakers Fund the State Water Plan?

When it comes to the cost of the looming water crisis in Texas, the State Water Development Board is ready with some helpful numbers.They are generally big ones.

If the state does nothing to cope with its booming population and dwindling water supply, Texas businesses will lose $116 billion dollars over the next 50 years. The state as a whole will lose over 1 million jobs.

$53 Billion dollars is the price tag of the plan that the Board thinks will avert those losses and assure water security into this century. But the state has never funded the plan.

Now, in the aftermath of the worst single year drought in Texas history, water issues are getting more attention than they have in years. And lawmakers preparing for the upcoming legislative session are debating ways to fund the plan. But with many of those same lawmakers committed to cutting budgets and not raising taxes, their options are few and far between.

State Senator Glenn Hegar advocates using the state's rainy day fund to partially fund the water plan. He sits on the senates Natural Resources Committee.

That leaves them trying to figure out what, if anything, they may be able to do in 2013.

“You don’t have to solve the whole problem today,” Republican State Senator Glenn Hegar told StateImpact Texas at a recent conference on state water issues hosted by the Texas Tribune.

He sits on the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee. He believes it could be sufficient to fund a fraction of the total cost of the plan next year by dipping into the state’s rainy day fund. Even a relatively modest initial investment, he says, could kick-start local water projects and pay large dividends down the road.

“Invest [the funds] with an incentive. An incentive to not tell those local people what are the best projects for them, but to work in cooperation because they can also put dollars into the pot,” Hegar said.

It wouldn’t be the first time the state has written a one-time-only check for the water plan.  Last session lawmakers appropriated about $100 million dollars to state water projects. It barely put a dent in the projected need and came a far cry from funding the plan in the long run. That has other lawmakers looking at other, longer-term funding strategies.

Everything is on the table,” Republican State Representative Allan Ritter told StateImpact Texas.

Ritter chairs the Natural Resources Committee in the Texas House.  Last session he floated the idea of initiating a fee for connecting homes and businesses to the water system. He said the so-called “tap fee” would provide that steady stream of funding for the water plan.

“You know it’d be somewhere between the range of $3.50 to $5.00 range for a house every year,” he said.

In 2011 that sounded too much like a new tax to get any traction with Texas lawmakers. Though Ritter thinks this year continued water shortages may force lawmakers to re-think their attitudes about funding.

“We’ve gotta step up in that state of Texas and meet this demand because we’re short,” he said.

But, according to others, the water plan wouldn’t secure the state’s water future even if it was fully funded. An opinion that makes the partial funding being debated by lawmakers sound a lot like fiddling around the edges of a larger problem.

Marilu Hastings serves as Environment Program Director with the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, a group that funds environmental projects.

The plan is “necessary but not sufficient to really address the critical water issues we had before last year’s drought,” Marilu Hastings, Environment Program Director of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, told StateImpact Texas.

To truly tackle Texas water challenges, she says lawmakers should take a more strategic approach towards what projects get funded. For example, the 2012 plan doesn’t prioritize projects (some of the projects even appear to contradict each other) so even if money is found for the plan, it’s not clear if it would be used to great effect.

The plan could be better organized “so that your reservoir building, your conservation is more integrated,” she told StateImpact Texas.

Hastings and others also want the state to change how it governs surface and groundwater rights, and reconsider its estimates for future water supplies as the region gets drier.

But with lawmakers struggling to fund the plan already on the books, it’s unclear what other initiatives they will have the time or inclination to tackle when the legislative session begins in January.

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