Voting on Texas water strategy is a step forward

Posted Friday, Jun. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A May 20 news release from the U.S. Geological Survey was stunning: Tracking of underground water levels across the nation shows that from 2000 to 2008 this key natural resource was declining at almost three times the annual average rate of the past century.

For Texans, the news is even worse. The High Plains Aquifer (also called the Ogallala), which underlies much of the Panhandle and seven other states and is a crucial source of water for agriculture, is depleting significantly faster than the national average. From 2000 through 2008, it lost almost a third as much water as it lost during the entire 20th century.

That’s the sort of thing that should make Texans glad the Legislature came up with a plan to help finance more water projects across the state.

There’s a long way to go before Nov. 5, when voters are scheduled to go to the polls to decide whether they agree with the Legislature’s plan.

There’s no disagreement so far on the claim that additional water supplies are sorely needed. Arguments probably will focus more on whether this is the right plan and whether it is funded in the right way.

Still, the fact that a thoughtful plan to address future water needs has been developed and will go to voters is a significant step forward.

In fact, there’s no shortage of suggestions about how to bring more water to serve the needs of a rapidly growing population that seems to face an inescapable drought.

The state requires that kind of planning. There are 16 regional water planning groups across Texas, and each is responsible for creating a 50-year water supply plan and updating it with new growth and use assumptions every five years.

The plan assumes drought conditions.

The Texas Water Development Board assembles those regional plans into a statewide picture. For the 2012 State Water Plan, the regional groups recommended 562 unique water supply projects that could produce an additional 9 million acre-feet of water per year by 2060, the TWDB says.

An acre-foot of water, the amount required to cover one acre to a depth of 1 foot, is 325,851 gallons.

About 34 percent of the water from the recommended projects would come from conservation and reuse, about 17 percent from new major reservoirs, about 34 percent from other surface water supplies and about 15 percent from other sources, according to a report from the House Research Organization.

Accounting for population growth, increased demand and depletion of existing supplies (primarily the Ogallala’s projected continued drop), the state is expected to need 8.3 million acre-feet of additional water by 2060.

And here’s the bottom line: TWDB estimates the capital cost to design, construct and implement the projects outlined in the 2012 Texas Water Plan to be $53 billion. Municipal water providers are projected to need $27 billion to implement new strategies.

The proposition facing Texas voters on the Nov. 5 ballot will be whether to devote $2 billion from the state’s $11.8 billion rainy-day fund to create a revolving account to help finance these projects.

Gov. Rick Perry’s office says that $2 billion will provide credit enhancement and other assistance for $30 billion in water projects during the next 50 years.

The TWDB also has an additional $6 billion in bonding authority to help finance other projects.

Some opponents object to using the rainy-day account for water plan funding, saying it should be used instead to cover emergency revenue shortfalls, natural disasters or a possible adverse ruling on public school finance from the state Supreme Court.

Others say the TWDB’s current bonding authority is enough to cover the needed projects.

Those arguments and probably more will be heard between now and November. For now, just having the statewide debate should be counted as progress.

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