Texas House approves fund to address water needs

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- Lawmakers took a major step toward replenishing the state's dwindling water supplies over the next half-century as the Texas House voted 146-2 to create a revolving fund to develop local and regional water projects.

House Bill 4, which now goes to the Senate, is part of a two-tiered legislative package to implement a 50-year water plan designed to ensure that the nation's second-largest state will have an abundant source of water to supply its burgeoning population.

The next step -- likely to be far more controversial -- is approval of companion legislation, HB11, to withdraw $2 billion from the state's rainy-day fund to seed the proposed State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT).

The water plan, assembled by 16 regional planning groups working under the umbrella of the Texas Water Development Board, warns of critical water shortages over the next 50 years unless the state implements a $53 billion package of strategies ranging from conservation to new reservoirs.

Municipal water planners are expected to need $27 billion from the state to develop the projects.

"It's time for the Legislature to step up and fully implement the water plan," said Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and the chief architect of the legislation.

The state's top leaders -- Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus -- have made it a priority to tackle water and other infrastructure needs this session.

Perry and Dewhurst have called for withdrawals from the rainy-day fund to spur the initiatives. Perry has proposed a $3.7 billion drawdown while Dewhurst has suggested a pair of state constitutional amendments to authorize rainy-day funds for water and transportation development.

But resistance to tapping into the fund was evident in the debate on HB4, perhaps foreshadowing a more divisive debate when lawmakers turn to HB11 to authorize the rainy-day money.

Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, was one of three members who voted against the bill when it received preliminary approval, 144-3, before casting a "yes" vote on final passage.

Zedler said financial analysts see the reserve fund as a source of the state government's economic strength, and he expressed concern that a withdrawal could endanger Texas' AAA bond rating.

"That could cost the state a lot of money," he said.

Zedler, however, said he supports parts of HB4 and chose to vote for it after recognizing that it would pass overwhelmingly.

At Ritter's urging, House members defeated an amendment by Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, that would have blocked the use of the rainy-day money for the revolving fund. Taylor, declaring his opposition to the bill, also warned that reducing the rainy-day fund could jeopardize the state's bond rating.

Comptroller Susan Combs has projected that the fund will have $11.8 billion by the end of the 2014-15 biennium.

The fund is sustained by oil and gas revenue and is officially known as the Economic Stabilization Fund.

Reluctant support

Some lawmakers who voted for the measure voiced reservations.

"I don't think we have any other choice but to move further" in dealing with water needs, said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. "But there are a lot of things I don't like about this bill."

"It helps rich people get richer," he said, restating criticism over cuts in education funding in 2011. "We don't throw money at kids, but we'll throw money helping engineers get rich building dams."

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he "debated back and forth on it for quite a bit, but at the end I felt it was an appropriate mechanism to support our state water needs for now and into the future."

He said he felt more comfortable about supporting the bill after lawmakers approved amendments requiring that the identities of investors in water projects be posted on the Internet and that funds targeted for water development not be diverted to other uses.

The amendments were authored by Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, with assistance from Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, authored an unsuccessful amendment that would have prohibited contractors on water projects from making contributions to a candidate for state office or to an office that has direct responsibility for awarding the contract.

"Overall, I think the bill is good," Turner said.

"Our region is growing, and we need to ensure that we have a stable and sustainable water supply for decades to come."

But he also predicted a contentious debate on HB11, saying that "a lot of people would like to make sure public education is funded" before addressing infrastructure projects.

A diverse lineup of sometimes colliding interests endorsed HB4, reflecting what many say is an urgent need to address water needs after one of the worst droughts in state history.

Business groups have expressed fears that the image of a parched Lone Star State will provide ammunition for other states to persuade industries not to move to Texas.

Supporters of the water initiative include the Texas Oil and Gas Association, the Texas Association of Realtors, the Sierra Club, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the Texas Nature Conservancy and the Water Environment Association of Texas.

Making H {-2}O history

"This is really, really an historic groundbreaking step in the water world," said Heather Harward, executive director of H2O4Texas, a broad-based coalition that includes the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and the North Texas Commission.

Implementing the measures, she said, "would allow the state to provide water for generations."

Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth chamber, testified in behalf of HB4 at a February hearing, telling lawmakers that adequate water "is what keeps our economic engines running."

He also endorsed robust conservation and water reuse to "extend our supplies -- not just in times of drought but year-round."

Texas' plan projects that water demand will increase 22 percent while supplies decrease by 10 percent over the next 50 years.

The population is expected to surge from 25.4 million in 2010 to 46.3 million in 2060.

In the 16 counties anchored by the Metroplex, water demands are expected to increase 86 percent over the next half-century as the population doubles from 6.6 million to 13 million.

Once completed, a $2.3 billion pipeline will bring water to Dallas-Fort Worth from Lake Palestine.

But the Tarrant Regional Water District's efforts to import water from Oklahoma have been blocked by a long-running lawsuit. Rural communities and environmentalists have also resisted proposals to build reservoirs to supply water to residents in the Metroplex and other urban areas.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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