Water-Bored: The Lege Fails to Fund the State Water Plan

In the midst of an historical drought, the Republicans in the House balk at using fees to fund water-supply projects.
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Even as an historical drought grips the whole state, a measure to pump money into the underfunded state water plan has failed at the Texas Legislature. Rep. Allan Ritter, a Democrat-turned-Republican from rainy Southeast Texas, said the legislation died in the Calendars Committee because it included new fees unacceptable to the Republican supermajority in the House.

“We’re fighting so many fiscal battles,” Ritter said. “I just can’t get the members to lock onto it.”

Ritter’s idea was to finally come up with a permanent source of funding for a backlog of water-supply projects contemplated by the state water plan. By 2060, it’s estimated that Texas will need to spend $52 billion to avoid water shortages. But Ritter’s approach, consisting of two funding sources, never had a chance.

One, he wanted to impose a new monthly “tap fee” on people and businesses –  an extra $1 per month for residential water bills. Two, he wanted to take $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, a much-abused pot of money that was supposed to help poor people pay for their utility bills. Now it mostly just sits in an account to help the Legislature balance the budget.

The proposed changes would’ve been put to the voters in November as a proposed constitutional amendment. The money would’ve helped finance hundreds of proposed projects, including new reservoirs, water conservation efforts, pipelines, and desalination.

Ritter told me today that he’s worried that Texas is gambling with Mother Nature by not investing in water infrastructure now.

“Here’s the thing that concerns me: Today the data shows that if we have the drought of record again we’d be short 3 million acre-feet per year short,” Ritter told me yesterday. “I don’t want us to wake up in 20 years or 50 years and have this same problem.”

The cost of meeting Texas’ growing water demands keeps going up and up. In 2005, Ritter said the price-tag was $32 billion. Just six years later, in 2011, the estimated cost is $52 billion.

“What that tells me is that the longer we keep putting it off the more expensive it becomes,” he said.

If there were ever a time that water scarcity should get lawmakers’ attention, this is it. This is the driest seven-month period in Texas record history. A new drought report came out this morning that shows 48 percent of the state in “exceptional” drought, the most dire category. Wildfires have scorched over 2.2 million acres. Economic losses could total $3 billion.

Yes, it’s raining in parts of the state right now. But this drought is  far from over. In West Texas, critical drinking-water supplies are shriveling to nothing. A serious water emergency lurks in the not-so-distant future, if these conditions persist. But the Texas Legislature is gripped by austerity mania and so we’ll just have to wait another two hot, long years.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.