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As Drought Persists, Water Seeps on to the Issue List

Things are starting to move on the water policy front, with Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and others saying water will be a focus of the upcoming session. Meanwhile, West Texas keeps getting drier.

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Things are starting to move on water, both on the policy front and on the crisis front.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, told an audience in Austin this week that water would be “at the center of the discussion” when the House reconvenes next year. Straus noted that the state’s population is projected to rise to 33 million by 2030, and that creates an “obligation to focus on infrastructure and resources.”

Straus is from San Antonio, and he cited a time in the past when USAA, a major employer, threatened to move to Phoenix because San Antonio then was seen at the time as water-constrained. “It was a wake-up call,” Straus said, though the company ultimately stayed. “I don’t want to reach a day where a Texas company announces it’s moving to Florida or Ohio because of water issues,” he added.

Straus’ talk took place at a meeting of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Afterwards, when asked what specific measures he planned for the next session, he said he was following the lead of Texas House Natural Resources Chair Allan Ritter, R-Nederland. There are “a lot of ideas out there,” he said, but among them, he cited beginning to implement the state water plan, the $53 billion to-do list that enumerates projects like reservoirs and fixing leaky pipes around the state.

Lawmakers on a panel at last weekend's Texas Tribune festival agreed that taking action on water — including starting to fund the water plan—is critical. "I think education will be everyone's 1A topic, but water should be 1B," said State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland. But the lawmakers said the challenge of water legislation was that each community has a different water situation—ie water is highly localized—and infrastructure is expensive.

"I think it's incumbent upon our leadership to hear the alarm that went off in 2011,” said State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking on another panel. “If they don't, that will be their legacy.” 

Other water policy issues are moving forward too. Earlier this month, the Texas Railroad Commission opened a comment period on proposed changes to regulations governing recycling of water that flows back out of fracked oil and gas wells, in the hopes of making it easier for companies to recycle the water. The comment period extends until October 29.

Meanwhile, the water-supply situation continues to become more acute in parts of the state, especially West Texas. The TCEQ has information on roughly two-dozen communities, mostly small and many in West Texas, that are at risk of running out of water within six months. (See this map.) Among bigger cities, San Angelo, conscious that it has just a year's supply of water remaining, is tightening water restrictions. Brownwood recently received a $12 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board; part of it will go toward a planned new facility that will process and recycle wastewater, and send it back into the city’s taps. The TCEQ must approve the plant’s design, and the Brownwood city council also needs to sign off on the project later this year. If built, the plant would become perhaps the second such facility in the country; a similar plant is under construction at Big Spring and should be finished by the end of the year.

Water woes also continue to plague Wichita Falls. If lakes there continue to fall, the city will go into a tighter stage of water restrictions.

Several water-focused forums will be underway soon. Texas A&M University will hold a conference on water and energy issues in College Station on October 3-4. And the Texas Tribune, in conjunction with Texas State University, is organizing a water conference in San Marcos on October 29. A panel at the South by Southwest Eco conference, scheduled for Oct 5, will also address Texas water issues. 

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