Politics
5:30 pm
Fri January 18, 2013

Agenda Texas: Water Tops Legislative Agendas

Agenda Texas as heard on KUT-FM 90.5

Wetting your Whistle

Texas lawmakers have begun their 83rd session with money to spend – and a LONG list of projects to fund.  One item keeps percolating to the top of the agenda as lawmakers are asked about funding priorities priorities.

Water.

It keeps the grass green, the crops growing, and in general...sustains all life. But why has water jumped to the top of the legislative priority list for this session?  We asked Terrence Henry, who covers energy and the environment for KUT’s StateImpact Texas.

“We’re in the 3rd year of a drought right now. In 2011 we had our driest one-year period in recorded Texas history. The reservoirs in Texas are only about 2/3rds full right now," warned Henry.

"And there’s potential this fall that we’ll have another dry period which could put us on par to be like the conditions we had in the drought of record in the 50’s.”

So Texas needs water. But the state’s already had a water plan in place for a while – lawmakers just never funded it. Why now?

“I think the answer is business. Business interests are very much in favor of this. Because they know that if Texas develops this reputation as a place where the taps run dry, business could dry up too,” said Henry.

To keep the water flowing, Republican state Representative Allan Ritter has filed a bill to create an infrastructure bank for water projects.

“This bank would get two billion dollars from the Rainy Day fund to start off with," explained Henry. "It could be supplemented by grants and loans, donation, perhaps even fees down the road. By Ritter’s estimation, that’s enough money to fund all the water projects we need to fund right now.”

The state water plan identifies more than $50 billion in water projects – where do we start with $2 billion?

“With this water infrastructure bank, feasibly you lend money out. And then hopefully the money comes back in and then you fund the next project. And so on from there," said Henry.

So it looks like money is going to be spent somewhere to create more water capacity. What about water conservation? The bill takes a look at that too, said Henry.

“When Representative Ritter filled this legislation to fund this bank for the water plan, what he said is 20 percent of this fund has to go towards conservation. Has to go towards making more out of the water we already have. And that got a really positive response from environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club. So conservation definitely seems to be part of the conversation at this point.”

The Battle Ahead

Ushering a Water Plan through the Texas Legislature this year could fall to Nederland Republican Representative Allan Ritter. He’s filed the House plan to spend 2 billion on the state’s 50-year water plan. Ritter needs to answer three basic questions if he wants to get that plan to the governor’s desk.

#1: How do you convince a conservative, anti-spending legislature that it’s a good idea?
The answer: Tell ’em it’ll hurt business.

“You have a line somewhere, where you cap your economy. It’s over. If you don’t have the water resource to provide for society, for your economic engine, that’s your cap," said Ritter at a Texas Tribune event this week.

#2: Why should people be okay with the possibility that their water bill could increase as part of this plan to help pay for water infrastructure? Ritter says with water, it's actually very easy to explain.

"Even in my area. We’ve got to have about 180 thousand acre feet of water in the next 30-40 years. Well it isn’t free. It’s gonna cost money.”

Usually if you want something you have to pay for it. But at the Texas capitol the idea of a perfect bill often keeps bills that are just “good” from passing.

So #3: How does a lawmaker get the votes to fund a water plan that’s so massive in scope, with critics on all sides? Ritter said really the only way he can, by asking for patience.

“Let’s let the plan work for a little bit. And let’s let it mature for a little bit. Let’s keep looking at it and where we need to change anything.”

Step one, of course,  is coming up with money to fund the plan. Ritter needs a 2/3rds vote in the House and Senate to get the 2 billion he wants from the Texas Rainy Day fund. He’ll continue that effort when the Legislature starts back up on Wednesday.

Got a question about water or any other legislative item? Drop us a line at agendatexas@kut.org

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