If Texans pass Proposition 8 on the ballot next month, they will authorize a possible way to keep the water clean in the dried-out state in exchange for a reduced property tax bill.
The amendment to the Texas Constitution — one of two water-related ballot initiatives (the other is Prop 2) — will lower property taxes for landowners who practice good water stewardship, meaning techniques that maintain water quality and conserve water on their land.
Proposition 8 has bipartisan support and the backing of many environmental groups. In May, the concept was approved unanimously in the Legislature. That’s because it’s a “win-win for all Texans, and not just for landowners and ranchers,” said state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls. Estes co-authored the amendment with Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
If voters agree, any landowners who already receive tax incentives for protecting the land and wildlife can then protect their water, too, and receive a reduced property tax bill.
Landowners can do that by replacing native grasses, controlling erosion along stream banks, donating their water rights to the state’s water trust and putting gauges in streams and rivers for the state to monitor water quality, according to Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy.
Because more than 90 percent of water flows through or under private property, Huffman said, Prop 8 — which the Nature Conservancy strongly backs — is an “important way to begin protecting water.”
Using property taxes to maintain water quality and conserve water has never been done before, according to Larry Morandi, director of state policy research for the National Conference of State Legislatures. But it could work, he said, because it gives landowners the choice to comply.
“Providing market incentives for landowners to decide what they want to do, whether in liberal or conservative states, that's always the preferred approach than a regulation that says, ‘Hey, stop farming in this way,’” Morandi said.
Jerry Berggren, a representative of the Rowlett Tea Party, said his group had no particular view on Proposition 8.
There have been attempts in other states to incentivize water quality and conservation, according to Morandi, including one program in Colorado, implemented two years ago, that offers income tax credits to anyone who donates water rights back to the state. These credits are 50 percent of what the water right is worth — but residents or businesses can only get the credits if the state doesn’t have a budget deficit, Morandi said. And they can’t get the water back — which may be why so far no one has donated water rights to the Colorado program.
Prop 8's backers say the measure is revenue-neutral. It "won’t cost the state a dime because it is only offered to landowners who already qualify the lower tax rate under the agricultural production, wildlife stewardship or timber harvesting programs," said Vanessa Martin, a Nature Conservancy representative. "It just gives them more options managing their land."
Besides state legislators, landowners like J. David Bamberger, who owns a 5,500 acre ranch in the Hill Country, support Prop 8. Bamberger said he liked in particular that it encourages landowners to add native grasses, which need less water than some non-native species.
When rain falls on grass, it doesn’t seep into the dirt. Instead, the water travels down the grass stalk and into the root system. According to Bamberger, who testified at a Legislature hearing about Prop 8, for every square yard of prairie grass, there are nine miles of roots that bring water into the earth without pesticides or other chemicals that cities have to remove for drinking water.
But conservation practices like replacing native grasses don’t work as well without rain, said Carolyn Brittin, deputy executive administrator for the Texas Water Development Board. She noted that brush control — removing heavily water-using trees like cedar and mesquite to increase supply of surface and ground water — is another water-saving method that is only useful with rain.
Brittin said that other parts of Proposition 8, such as donating water rights to the state trust, will benefit the water supply — unless the drought continues to get worse.
“Right now, the drought is as close to as bad as it can get,” Brittin said.