Lawmakers Fret About Water, but the Public Doesn't

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The Brazos River in Pickwick, Texas - June 30, 2012
The Brazos River in Pickwick, Texas - June 30, 2012

Late arrivals to the TribLive event this week with Allan Ritter, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, found the main dining room of the Austin Club filled to the rafters with a buzzing, elbow-to-elbow audience that included all sectors of the lobby and interest group crowd, as well as a large cross-section of staff and legislators.  They were there to hear Ritter declare that water is “just our future, I don’t know how else to put it” and that doing nothing would limit Texas “to no growth.”

Suddenly, the Legislature has water on the brain.  Water-related legislation has emerged as a central issue in the 83rd legislative session. There are big-ticket proposals already in circulation (a $1 billion proposal by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and a $2 billion proposal by Ritter), as well as other smaller, regional proposals related to water. The political press has noticed and produced a small flood of articles on the subject, including an issue of Texas Monthly that included multiple articles on various aspects of water (including one by the Tribune's Kate Galbraith).

Yet at the same time, water, as a public policy issue, hasn’t made any waves with a public more focused on the economy and, in the Republican Party, immigration and border security. Like most problems that require action today for the betterment of tomorrow (and, even worse, the day after tomorrow), water is not on the public’s radar.

For those making a big push to fix the state’s water problem this session, the percentage of Texans choosing “water supply” as the state’s most important problem should be a sobering reminder of the difficulty they face in an election-centric world where politicians increasingly seek to provide constituents with tangible results. 

As regular readers of the Tribune know, in each of our University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls we ask respondents what they would say is the most important problem facing the state of Texas.  We then provide them with a list of possible answers.  Over the four-year span of the statewide poll, making a list of the top problems has become an exercise in rounding up the usual suspects: education, immigration, jobs and the economy. Looking back at data from 2010 through our most recent poll in October 2012, the high-water mark (pun intended) came in February 2012 when 4 percent of respondents indicated that the water supply was the state’s most important problem.  In the other 9 surveys, 3 percent thought it was the most important problem once, 2 percent twice, 1 percent 4 times, and less than 1 percent twice.

This data doesn’t mean that the water supply won’t or shouldn’t be dealt with in the coming session.  What it does suggest is that if the Legislature is going to tackle the state’s water supply, it’s not going to come about as a result of public demand. We’ve heard a lot about the growing influence of the grassroots in recent months, especially in the Texas Republican Party — but that growth doesn’t seem to have been triggered by water. 

On the contrary, this appears to be an elite-driven issue.  In the December 4, 2012 edition of the Tribune’s Inside Intelligence: On Infrastructure..., there was some consensus that water was the infrastructure issue that the Legislature would finally tackle.  With all the attention currently being paid to the water supply, we’ll have to see in our next survey whether the water has, in fact, flowed downhill.

Tribune pollster Jim Henson heads the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin; Joshua Blank, a research assistant for the UT/TT poll, is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at UT-Austin.

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