The good news is that the 2013 Lege does seem to be serious about water issues.
House Speaker Joe Straus recently said Texas’ water needs will be a high priority, while Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, proposed tapping the Rainy Day Fund for $1 billion to finance new infrastructure identified in the state’s long-range water plan.
Previous attempts to fund the water plan failed because of spending concerns, but Straus and Dewhurst have said the state cannot afford to go thirsty as its population grows. The plan warns of grave shortages by 2060 without more supplies.
The new push to fund the plan is encouraging, said Heather Harward, executive director of H2O4Texas, a coalition of businesses, cities and water suppliers. “We could have certainty once and for all,” Harward said.
The group has called for lawmakers to pour as much as $2 billion from the roughly $8 billion Rainy Day Fund to help pay for water-related infrastructure. The money would be part of a revolving loan program in which the state would help cities and other public entities start projects. Once the loan is repaid, other projects could get financing.
The Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency, has advocated a similar approach. It has suggested that the state could finance $44 billion in projects over the next half-century with a $2.6 billion capitalization.
Some policy experts and environmentalists are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming each Texan will use the same amount per day in the future. Studies show people across the country are using less water now than they were 30 years ago.
The estimated cost of the state’s plan, especially over the next decade, “strains the imagination,” said Sharlene Leurig, an Austin-based expert on water-project financing at Ceres, a nonprofit group that works with investors to promote sustainability. “In reality Texas needs to spend far less than that to meet its water needs.”
Leurig said cities should push to reduce daily consumption though conservation and efficiency because “it’s the cheapest water available.” In contrast, building expensive infrastructure to meet future demand that does not materialize will put the credit ratings of public water systems at risk and significantly increase tax and water bills for customers.
Like I said, it’s a good thing that the Lege is starting to pay attention to this issue. You would have thought they’d have considered it back in 2011 when we were in the middle of the worst drought of most people’s lifetimes, but the Republicans were all drunk on austerity punch back then, and they’re only just now beginning to figure out where they’ve woken up, and where their clothes and car keys are. The qualm I have is with the use of the Rainy Day Fund to kickstart things. Yes, it makes a certain amount of sense, and yes, there’s more than enough money in the RDF to cover what they’re talking about. The problem is that the 2011 Lege wrote a bunch of hot checks that the 2013 Lege will have to cover – $4.7 billion to Medicaid, $2.1 billion to schools, all deferred obligations from the last biennium – and unless you’re willing to basically drain the RDF dry, there’s not enough in there to cover all of these things. If we use the RDF for this purpose, and then Straus and Dewhurst et al turn around and say the RDF is now off limits because there just isn’t enough there to pay for other things and still maintain a cushion, that’s not good. Since those obligations must be met, it would mean the funds would come out of revenue for this session, which is another way of saying you can kiss that so-called surplus good-bye. Frankly, under that scenario, I’d expect there would need to be more cuts, especially if the Lege follows through on its claims to be more transparent about the budget and to not resort to the sort of skulduggery they’ve always used to make the budget appear to be balanced. We’ve robbed from the needy enough, thanks.
I also share Ms. Leurig’s concern about the need to prioritize conservation above all other efforts, as conservation is by far the cheapest and most effective solution. As the story notes, the San Antonio Water System, which has always emphasized conservation, came through 2011 in pretty good shape, while the wastrel city of Midland ran its water supply down so far it wound up hurting its water enterprise’s credit rating. Let’s not lose sight of simple and cost-effective ways to use less water and to encourage the use of less water, and let’s not build any reservoirs we’re not sure we really need.