Vol 29, Issue 42 Print Issue

Texas Lawmakers Keep Pressing for Urgent Water Action

Water pipeline crew members prepare for the laying of the next section of the 60-mile-long chain running near Eden, Texas.
Water pipeline crew members prepare for the laying of the next section of the 60-mile-long chain running near Eden, Texas.

House Speaker Joe Straus, Republican of San Antonio, has developed a stump speech about water that he’s giving frequently these days. “Water policy and planning in this next session is absolutely critical,” he told the Texas Tribune’s water-focused festival on October 29th. Given the rapid growth of the state — Texas’ population is projected to increase by about 80 percent by 2060 — the Legislature has an “obligation” to think beyond the next few years, and to make sure that cities — he named as examples Austin, Midland and Wichita Falls — have enough water.

Whether the Legislature will actually do that is the question that everyone in the water world is asking. It probably helps, from the standpoint of spurring action, that 58 percent of Texas remains in drought (hard as that may be for swamped East Coasters to believe). State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said during a panel discussion that while he wouldn't quite characterize the water situation as “dire” (though it was very serious), “we have to deal with our infrastructure issues.” The Texas Water Development Board has identified $53 billion in infrastructure needs; much will be funded locally, but clearly there is a role for the state in assisting with securing funding, if the state wants to take it.

A law panel at the conference also noted that a key water case to watch, in the wake of the landmark Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day case decided by the Texas Supreme Court earlier this year, is the long-running Bragg vs. Edwards Aquifer Authority. A lower court awarded the plaintiff substantial compensation for a “takings” claim, because the Braggs got insufficient water for their pecan farms (which were there even before the Edwards Aquifer Authority was created in 1993). The case now on appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Antonio.

But most of the focus will remain on the Legislature, and it was Straus who made the big-picture case for action. He recalled that decades ago USAA, a major San Antonio employer, grew concerned about the city’s long-term water supplies and threatened to move to Phoenix. “When one of [your] largest employers is threatening to move to the desert because of water, you know you have a problem,” Straus joked. San Antonio Water System, the local utility, soon began a push to find new supplies and encourage conservation and is now widely regarded as an example of water management in the state.

“I never want to hear that a Texas company is relocating to Florida or Ohio or, God forbid, Phoenix because the state lacked the water necessary to support their industry,” Straus said. 

*******

In other water news, coming up on November 14 is a contentious Lower Colorado River Authority’s board meeting. The issue, as usual, is water for rice farmers (Tom Mason, the former general manager of the LCRA who is now with an Austin law firm, has sometimes joked that dealing with water issues took well over 90 percent of his time and accounted for just a tiny fraction of the LCRA’s revenue). As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, the LCRA's staff has recommended against seeking emergency action from the state to cut off water to the farmers, their biggest customers, again in January (they were cut off this year for the first time in history). However, with the Highland Lakes still just 43 percent full, an El Niño event no longer predicted for this winter and possibilities of a drought-correlated La Niña looming for 2013-14, this is hugely contentious. Residents near the Highland Lakes, concerned for their recreation-related livelihoods, are gearing up for a fight. In late October, as reported by the Austin Business Journal, the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a resolution urging the state to extend the emergency drought order it issued last year, which cut off the farmers.

• On November 18-19, Ken Burns’ new film, “The Dust Bowl,” premieres on PBS. Expect plenty of old images and stories from Panhandle towns like Dalhart.

• The Texas Water Development board has launched a new data website. It provides a clearer look at reservoir levels. Look for the Water Board to get on Facebook and Twitter in November.

• In an unusual recent deal reported by the Dallas Business Journal, a private company has agreed to split the cost of building a reservoir with a river authority, in exchange for the rights to a proportional share of the water. Tomlin Infrastructure Group will pay 47 percent of the cost of building Lake Columbia in East Texas, and the Angelina and Neches River Authority will pay the rest. Tomlin (and partners) will then get control of 47 percent of the water — assuming, of course, the reservoir gets built, which is no easy thing in Texas.

Ron Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University, who pointed out this deal, notes that it was “unusual for private dollars” to invest so heavily in a reservoir, which is costly. Far more often, private dollars go into groundwater. So that’s a deal to watch.