Texas mayors show support for $2B state water projects

By Chris Tomlinson
Associated Press

AUSTIN — The mayors of Houston, Dallas and Austin told lawmakers on Tuesday that they support a proposed $2 billion fund to finance water projects across the state and would like to see less red tape and more conservation efforts.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker told the House Natural Resources Committee that she supports using money from the Rainy Day Fund to create a water development bank that would help local authorities build new water projects and finance conservation efforts. Houston has invested in numerous water projects and delivers 495 million gallons a day to 470,000 customers.

Parker said the fund would help the rest of the state make sure there is enough water for Texas’ growing population.

“If the rest of the state doesn’t make the same significant investment that we have, then we are out there by ourselves, and we may lose our competitive edge as a state going into the future,” she said.

The committee was hearing testimony on House Bill 4, a proposal by Rep. Alan Ritter, R-Nederland, to create a revolving, $2 billion fund that the State Water Development Board would use to leverage financing for water projects. The board says Texans need to spend $53 billion over the next 50 years to make sure the state has enough water for a growing population, with half of the money coming from the state.

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that it was critical that the state emphasizes conservation and ensures enough water is left behind for the eco-system.

He pointed out that large-scale water projects, such as new reservoirs, can have a negative impact on the environment.

“In 1968, the State Water Plan predicted that by the year 2020 you would need 32 million acre-feet of water. Of course it’s almost 2020 now, and we’re only using 18 million acre-feet,” he said. “It’s critical that in planning for the next 50 years, we are flexible and we’re careful not to burden Texans in the future with huge debts for projects we might not need.”

He pointed out that San Antonio grew by more than 65 percent while still using the same amount of water and said other cities could follow that model.

He said plans are for the state to meet 34 percent of future water needs through conservation and called on the committee to set aside that much of the new water fund for projects that save water.

Just fixing leaky water mains could save enough water for 2.7 million Texans, Metzger said.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings called on lawmakers to change the permitting process to make it easier and cheaper to build new water facilities.

He cited the experience of Dallas, which tried to build a new reservoir on the Neches River called Lake Fastrill.

The city spent millions of dollars on developing the project, filing permits and ultimately on litigation, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court rule against the city, killing the project.

“The lengthy permitting process creates a situation where local governments must make a wager on getting water,” Rawlings said. “If we don’t deal with these water needs, in 2060 it will cost us about half a million jobs in the area and $64 billion in projected income.”

So far no group has come out against creating what would be called the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, or SWIFT.

But the measure may require Republican lawmakers to vote in favor of lifting the state’s constitutional spending limit, which many conservatives do not want on their record.

Lawmakers feel a new urgency in dealing with the state’s water shortage following the worst single-year drought in the state’s history in 2011.

Much of the state remains in drought and experts warn that it may continue and become the worst multi-year drought on record.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell also testified Tuesday in support of the water fund, saying it would eliminate the need to charge a fee for every water tap in the state.

Jim Parks, executive director of the North Texas Municipal Water District, explained to lawmakers that his system currently serves 1.6 million customers and is projected to serve 3.8 million in 50 years.

He said the authority has convinced customers to reduce water usage by 12 percent through an education project, but at the same time one of the district’s reservoirs, Lake Texhoma, is currently off-limits because of an invasive species.

He also said the new fund needs less red tape than current ones, which he said discourages his district from using them.