Nursery industry looks to Austin for action on water

Posted Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- The plants and flowers are arriving daily by the truckload.

With spring fever about to kick into high gear, nurseries, greenhouses and garden centers are gearing up for the busiest time of the year as backyard gardeners get ready to bring their landscapes back to life.

And while concerns about the ongoing drought and another summer of unrelenting heat are on their minds, those in the nursery industry are also keeping an eye on legislation in Austin, where there is a push to fund the State Water Plan.

Sam Weger of Calloway's Nursery, past chairman of the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, said the funding is essential.

"I think throughout the industry everybody is watching this," Weger said. "Water is such a huge part of our business. We're absolutely concerned -- not only in the short term but in the long term."

Bills filed in both the House and Senate would establish a revolving fund of low-interest loans for water projects. The fund would help local governments and water providers build infrastructure, including the possibility of new reservoirs, and one proposal would have up to 20 percent of the revolving fund used to promote conservation and reuse.

To fund the plan fully, state leaders have suggested using up to $2 billion in the rainy-day fund. At his State of the State speech in January, Gov. Rick Perry urged lawmakers to use $3.7 billion from the rainy-day fund for water and transportation projects.

The plan does have critics, as some legislators suggested that the rainy-day fund should be used to restore some of the $5.4 billion in education cuts legislators approved two years ago.

List of projects

Last week, The Associated Press obtained a list of top-priority water projects, most of which are designed to provide water to the state's largest population centers.

The list was compiled by the Texas Water Development Board, the agency that would oversee the funds. Under legislation proposed by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horsehoe Bay, the part-time six-person board would be replaced with a full-time three-member team.

Fraser requested the priority list and he got a copy, as did Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, according to The Associated Press.

The list drew criticism from environmental groups that said there wasn't enough emphasis on conservation.

"The water board needs to get their priorities straight," Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger said. "As we respond to the drought and plan how to meet our water needs in the years to come, we need to pursue a balanced solution that maximizes the efficiency of water use, but the state is giving water conservation just lip service."

Without new projects outlined in the State Water Plan, North Texas is projected to face a shortfall of water over the next 50 years as the population is expected to double.

"It's a matter of survival for the industry," said Jim Reaves, the nursery association's director of legislative and regulatory affairs. "It's a matter of survival for all agricultural commodities."

The Texas Nursery and Landscape Association supports conservation and says it can live with twice-a-week outdoor water restrictions, which Dallas and Austin have already implemented. Last year, Fort Worth and Arlington briefly discussed going to twice-a-week permanently but tabled the issue.

"We can live with it," Reaves said. "But the bottom line is the more we can conserve, the less likely we will go under permanent water restrictions."

Conservation a key

In 2010, the so-called green industry, which includes nurseries, greenhouses, landscapers, and lawn and garden equipment manufacturers and retailers, totaled $14.6 billion in total gross sales, according to a Texas A&M study. Dallas-Fort Worth represented 24 percent of sales statewide.

In 2011, those sales totaled $15.6 billion and the DFW area again accounted for about 24 percent of total sales.

But in the drought of 2011, customers stopped buying when the summer turned brutally hot.

"The weather is a huge factor," Weger said. "If we're too dry people are hesitant to plant. Weather is just part of the business and those that have been in it a long time understand that and plan for it. It's the same kind of thing that impacts farmers."

With recent dry years, there has been a push toward more native and drought-tolerant plants, but many customers keep buying the same things.

"As much as preach about it and talk about it, people aren't changing their habits very quickly," said Steve Chaney, Tarrant County extension agent for home horticulture. "Texas still has some of the cheapest water in the nation and until it hits them in the pocketbook, we're not going to see people change habits."

Jim Lawson, general manager of the Plant Shed, said some customers are more aware of conserving water and buying drought-tolerant or native plants. Some have also talked about water restrictions and asked for advice for more efficient ways to water.

But he agreed that many keep buying their favorites.

"They want color," Lawson said. "They want to buy the plants with color."

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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