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With or Without $2 Billion, Water Woes Unlikely to Go Away

Whether or not Texas voters approve Proposition 6, which would take $2 billion from the state's savings account to use for water financing, the state has a long way to go in dealing with its water deficit.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Lilly pads in Stamford Lake, near Paint Creek, which was dug as a reservoir in the 1950s.

Ahead of Tuesday’s election, hundreds of thousands of Texans have already cast ballots on Proposition 6, which would amend the Texas Constitution so that $2 billion could be taken from the state’s savings account to help finance water infrastructure projects.

With Gov. Rick Perry campaigning for the measure and other prominent state Republicans spending more than $1 million in the last month on television ads supporting the amendment, it is clear that the stakes are high. State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, has hailed Proposition 6 as “the most important vote of your lifetime” and has said it would ensure a secure water supply for the next 50 years. Opponents, which include Tea Party groups, say it creates a “slush fund” promoting wasteful spending and debt.

But whether or not the measure passes, Texas has a long way to go before solving its water deficit.

The drought has shown little sign of letting up soon, and the state’s population explosion has not abated, either. Officials in Austin say its reservoirs could run dry in the next several years, echoing concerns across the state. Near the Oklahoma border, Wichita Falls is also facing a dire water situation as its reservoirs’ levels near 30 percent of capacity.

Proposition 6 supporters have used such water woes as examples of the measure’s importance. They say providing the state with $2 billion to offer cheaper loans for water supply initiatives would help local officials jump-start their planning efforts for projects like desalination plants and underground reservoirs. But setting rules for distributing the financing will be a contentious process, and it could be years before any money begins to flow.  

“It could help with future droughts, but it’s unlikely to help with the current drought,” Jeremy Brown, an environmental law researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, said of Proposition 6.

“By the time projects are identified, bonds are issued, and projects are actually initiated and then come online, that’s some ways down the road,” Brown said, “even for the most shovel-ready of projects.”

Then there are bureaucratic hurdles. A North Texas water supplier fought for 10 years to win state approval of the first reservoir to be built in decades, and it is still awaiting a federal permit. Some river authorities are in multiyear battles for rights to more water, including from the Brazos River. And many cities and industries are looking to groundwater to meet their growing needs, but they have to wait for legal fights to be resolved and for legislation to address the extent to which the resource can be regulated.

Debra Medina, a Republican candidate for state comptroller and a vocal opponent of Proposition 6, thinks water financing ranks behind such issues in importance. Few cities want cheaper state loans, she said; they prefer to sell bonds on the open market, especially at a time of record-low interest rates.

“You’re not dealing with water rights issues, you’re not dealing with groundwater,” Medina said. “Those are the areas where I think we really have to start to target some of our efforts.”

Fraser said that groundwater regulation would be the next issue he would tackle, but that money comes first.

Proposition 6 is more politically palatable for Republicans than previous attempts to allocate money for water: By pulling from Texas’ Rainy Day Fund, the state would not have to raise taxes, and because it requires amending the Constitution, voters have the ultimate say. 

“I’m hoping that we’re putting to bed the funding issue,” Fraser said. “Our hope is that we never have to come back to the Legislature for more money.”

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