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Bill of the Week: Laying Pipe Across the State

Texas spending money on infrastructure? Not impossible.

By Richard Whittaker, 7:00PM, Sat. Jan. 19, 2013

Bill of the Week: Laying Pipe Across the State

No, it's not a dream, not a hoax, not some parallel dimension. A Texas Republican is not only spending money on new infrastructure investment, but he's suggesting that the state use the Rainy Day Fund to pay for it. The option if we don't? We all go thirsty. All of us.

It's no secret that Texas is getting hotter, drier and has more people. That's a bad combination, so on Jan. 10, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, stepped up to the plate in his role as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and introduced two measures. Firstly, House Bill 4, which would create a State Water Implementation Fund: Secondly, HB11, which would put $2 billion from the economic stabilization fund (aka the Rainy Day Fund) into its coffers. The idea is to create a rotating fund – a water bank – where local entities can borrow money from Texas to pay for essential water infrastructure investment.

The state has acknowledged that water may be the biggest concern it faces. In December 2011, the Texas Water Development Board published the 2012 state water plan. The ninth such plan in 51 years, board chairman Edward G. Vuaghan presented its conclusions plainly:

The primary message of the 2012 State Water Plan is a simple one: In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.

With the state population expected to soar from 25 million in 2010 to 56 million in 2060, there's some stark news: Demand for water in Texas stands at about 18 million acre-feet per year, but and supply is just about 17 million. By 2060, demand will be over 22 million, but supply will actually fall to around 15 million.

We're not talking about having to turn your lawn sprinklers off. This would mean major cities running short of water, and major competition between disparate interests. Travis County has already seen the first blast in these water wars, with the Jan 8. decision by the Lower Colorado River Authority not to send water from the stressed Highland Lakes to rice farmers in Colorado, Matagorda and Wharton counties if their levels do not improve dramatically by March 1.

The report does not steer clear of the core problem: Texas is getting drier and hotter. The report includes predictive modeling that shows the state's average temperature will have risen seven degrees between 2000 and 2060. So as not to make this all sound like the kind of conservation-minded talk that scares off the fiscal conservatives, Vaughan also included "the sobering news of the economic losses likely to occur if these water supply needs cannot be met."

The plan, including major investment in a network of new reservoirs, would cost around $53 billion to fully fund. There's one big problem: There's no money to fund it.

That's where Ritter's bill comes in. He calculates that the $2 billion fund, if managed correctly, will cover the $53 billion need over the next 45 years. Significantly, HB4 requires that a minimum of 20% of all cash loaned in any biennium should go to water conservation, reuse or education. It's not much, and Texas should arguably be putting more emphasis on fixing existing leaky systems and new methods for reducing demand (something Las Vegas has done to great effect), but it's a definite start.

Now, in normal circumstances, this would go nowhere. The Legislature has talked a good game about water policy for years, but little of significance has been done since the Colorado was dammed. As for the Rainy Day Fund, Gov. Rick Perry would seemingly stop pulling a salary and his pension than access the $11.8 billion reserve. But with the cotton industry ravaged, rice look set to follow, and industry eyeing a dry future, it's a more pressing need than ever. Significantly, even Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has publicly proposed pulling $1 billion out of the Rainy Day Fund for such projects. Can Ritter convince him to double down on that billion?


Check out all the latest from the 83rd legislative session at Legeland.

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