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With Prop 6 Approved, Plans Remain Uncertain

Now that Texas voters have agreed to spend $2 billion to finance water supply projects, legislators say the state finally has some money to execute its water plan. But it's a plan full of contradictions and uncertainty.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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Now that Texas voters have agreed to spend $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to finance water supply projects, legislators say the state finally has some money to carry out its longstanding water plan.

But the plan is full of contradictions and questions — challenges that can't be solved by money alone. Many of the 3,100 projects included in the most recent version of the state water plan will never come to fruition, or take decades longer than originally anticipated. 

“There are a lot of uncertainties out there,” said Barney Austin, former director of the surface water resources division at the Texas Water Development Board. Austin is now an engineer for the environmental consulting firm INTERA, which does some water modeling for the TWDB. “Those uncertainties are not very well-captured in the state’s water planning process,” he added.  

The Marvin Nichols Reservoir is one of the biggest wild cards in the state water plan. North Texas considers the proposed $3.4 billion East Texas lake to be one of its major water supply strategies going forward. But opposition to the plan is so strong in East Texas that regional planners there don’t want the state to consider the reservoir at all. They estimate that the area would lose up to 200,000 acres of agricultural land if it's built.

The TWDB, which is in charge of state water planning and loans for water infrastructure, approved each region’s plan — North Texas' with the reservoir, East Texas' without it — without addressing the conflict. Now a lawsuit has forced officials to resolve the issue, and the state agency is putting together a committee to do it.

Carlos Rubinstein, the TWDB’s newly appointed chairman, said new requirements state lawmakers placed on his agency near the end of the last legislative session would help prevent such discrepancies in the future. House Bill 4 requires that regional planners and the Water Development Board rank or score proposed projects in the plan based on a number of factors that are being finalized right now.

“Now you’re actually looking at viability, feasibility,” Rubinstein said. Without considering such factors, he said, “you really don’t know if you’re meeting a need.” 

But Bill Mullican, TWDB’s former deputy administrator, said such political disputes between regions on water planning could become a more serious problem as $2 billion in low-cost loans for projects becomes available. He's not sure that the recently passed legislation will address them.

“The interregional conflict issue has to be resolved,” Mullican said. And for the water plan to work, “it seems like that’s going to have to be resolved pretty quickly.”

The heads of Texas’ 16 regional planning groups have been meeting regularly to come up with a scoring system for projects that can be used statewide. Jim Parks, who heads the North Texas planning group that includes the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said debate has been spirited.

“Some things are easier to evaluate than others,” said Parks, who is also the head of the North Texas Municipal Water District, a wholesale supplier to much of the region.

Other regions have butted heads over water plans in recent years — sometimes by accident. In a version of the state water plan produced several years ago, Mullican recalled, the Houston area submitted a proposal that counted on future water supplies from a new water rights permit on the Brazos River. It turned out that the region next door — which includes Abilene, College Station, Round Rock and Waco — had drafted a water plan that relied on the same permit.

“They were actually counting on the same water,” said Ken Kramer, who heads the Sierra Club's water conservation efforts in Texas. “And somehow, this escaped the attention, at least initially, of the water development board.”

The Brazos permit is no longer in the Houston region’s water plan. But for its neighbors, the permit accounts for 14 percent of the water supply that region hopes to have in place by 2060. The permit is still far from guaranteed, however; water users up and down the Brazos River Basin are contesting it, including Dow Chemical Company in Freeport.

To make up for the lost Brazos permit, Kramer recalled, the Houston area added smaller off-channel reservoirs, including one in Fort Bend County, to its latest water plan. But those lakes were added with “no prior discussion or specifics,” Kramer said. 

Mark Evans, chairman of the regional water planning group that includes Houston, said he didn’t recall any major dispute over the Brazos permit. But he did say the off-channel reservoirs “were added very late in the process.”

Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to the state water plan is groundwater regulation. Almost every region in Texas plans to look below the surface for more water supplies. But many water suppliers, including those that serve Austin and San Antonio, are battling for the right to pump groundwater outside their own jurisdiction. Unlike surface water, which is owned by the state, groundwater is considered landowners' private property in Texas, and nearly 100 different regulatory districts across the state are in charge of managing the resource. 

"We can't do a statewide water plan without groundwater and surface water working together," said state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. "And right now, they aren't." 

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