Texas Lege Looks to Address Flooding and Drought Without Saying "Climate Change"

Dipping a toe into a pool of options – and money

Lake Tyler, a man-made public water reservoir in East Texas, has seen wetter days (Photo via Getty Images)

Water – who's got it, who doesn't, and will any of it be left in 30 years – is already top of mind for Texans. Reservoirs are drying up, six boil water notices are issued every day, and aging rural systems are losing 572,000 acre-feet of water per year to leaks and line breaks – more than the 2020 demand of Ft. Worth, Austin, Laredo, El Paso, and Lubbock combined. Luckily, it seems both parties at the Legislature want to make change happen, as the existential threat of a dwindling supply becomes clearer – even if they can't say the words "climate" and "change" in the same sentence.

"I'd be very surprised to hear the Legis­lature at large talk about climate change, but I do hear a lot of talk about drought and flood, and what happens if the temperature goes up," says Jennifer Walker of the National Wild­life Federation. "They're talking around it without naming it, but more so than I've ever heard. It's kinda painful, tiny baby steps – but a little bit of progress is being made."

Last week the Texas Water Foundation announced the first Water Caucus in Texas history, with 38 House reps from both parties (including Democrats representing Travis, Hays, and Williamson counties). Its No. 1 priority is simply to educate lawmakers and aides about the state's fragile water infrastructure. Many already have information-gathering on the brain, like Reps. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, and Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, whose House Bills 57 and 846 would study the impacts of climate change. Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, has HB 570, a drought and wildfire study, and Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, has Senate Bill 296, which would require updated water availability modeling for river basins in East and South Texas. (The Colorado and Brazos basins have more up-to-date models.)

How will this bipartisan group leverage that information? According to Texas 2036, a state policy think tank, the U.S. Envi­ron­mental Protection Agency estimates it'll take $65 billion to fix the state's water infrastructure. Between a historic $32 billion surplus and $2.9 billion in federal funds for water infrastructure over the next five years, the main state agency focused on water – the Texas Water Devel­opment Board – should be able to get a good start.

The state must put up some money to match the federal funds (allocated via the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act). The Texas Living Waters Project (an umbrella coalition of NWF, Lone Star Sierra Club, Galveston Bay Foundation, and Hill Country Alliance) is asking the Lege to appropriate $125 million. Additionally, they'll ask for $5.3 million to pad TWDB's Economically Distressed Areas Program, which helps strengthen (or simply install) water/wastewater systems in low-income rural areas.

At last week's Water for Texas conference put on by TWDB, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and other Republicans showed support for directing some of the surplus toward water. Perry, whose district includes about 30 rural West Texas and Hill Country counties, proposed a $2 billion investment in aging infrastructure and another $1 billion for water supply development, including treatment of both seawater and "produced water," which is the byproduct of fracking. However, advocates say those projects should be a last priority, as they are expensive and can be environmentally damaging.

Both TWDB and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are under Sunset review this session, which creates opportunities to give the agencies more authority and resources to make Texas water systems more resilient. Stakeholders like Sierra Club will push to strengthen financial assistance for low-income communities like the perennially stricken colonias in the Rio Grande Valley. They're also seeking programs that encourage voluntary reversion of private rights to surface water, to maintain healthy environmental flows in waterways. "We want as much of that water to make it downstream to the Gulf as we can [get]," says Alex Ortiz, Sierra Club's water specialist.

In Central Texas, the water supply crunch impacts groundwater more than surface water, as demand on aquifers increases with the region's ongoing rapid growth. It's a challenge because development outside of cities is largely unregulated; advocates would like to see counties get more authority to restrain growth to maintain water supply. Perry's GOP Senate colleagues are proposing the opposite, taking away power that cities have to manage their own growth. Sen. Drew Springer, R-Munster, has filed SB 149, which would prohibit any city ordinance that "imposes a restriction on commercial activity." Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Min­eola, and Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, have bills to ban municipalities from setting pre-platting requirements for developers, which usually include having a guaranteed water supply.

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