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Money for Water, but we Need to be Careful

As we explained in an earlier post, voters will soon have the opportunity to pass a constitutional amendment to partially fund the State Water Plan.  Even with these additional funds, it’s easy to see that there won’t be enough money to pay for every desired project across the state.  The Texas Tribune recently examined the 2012 State Water Plan and the $53 billion of water supply and infrastructure projects contained therein.   A staggering 77% of the proposed expenditures for water projects are proposed by just 3 of the State’s 16 regions. First, let’s review a few of the numbers.

Region C, home of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, contains a whopping $21 billion dollars in proposed water projects.  These include the ill-conceived Marvin Nichols Reservoir Project as well as facility improvements, water treatment expansion and additional water supply reservoirs.

Region H includes the nation’s 4th largest city, Houston, and it’s rapidly growing suburbs.  Their plan includes $12 billion in water projects.

Region L, which includes San Antonio and parts of South Texas, rings in at over $7 billion and contains projects such as seawater desalination and building new off-channel reservoirs.

Although these are some of the fastest growing regions in the state, increased growth doesn’t mean new supply projects are the only solutions or that all projects are equal. There are important considerations to take into account when funding new projects.  To be an efficient use of State money, it’s critical that there is a fair and effective prioritization of projects.  This won’t be an easy task, but as we prepare for extraordinary investment in Texas water supplies it’s imperative we get it right. Here are several factors to consider:

  • Getting Demand Right:  The need for supply is dependent on demand projections; however, per person water use is declining nationwide and utilities are struggling to understand what this means at the local level.  Demand expectations and use trends should be carefully considered in advance of long-term investments to ensure needless supply projects aren’t built.  Once our communities make investments for water supply and infrastructure projects, the money will have to be paid back whether the projected demand materializes or not.  That could put an undue burden on ratepayers and undermine water conservation incentives.
  • Conservation and Efficiency:  Several Texas utilities have fully embraced conservation as a water supply strategy.  By using less water on a per person basis, these communities have extended their current water supplies so that that they can meet the needs of a growing population or attract new business investment.  Unfortunately, there are many areas where this hasn’t yet occurred. This should be business as usual across the entire state.  Cities should put effective programs in place to reduce their water use before investing in other water supply projects and TWDB should ensure this when evaluating projects for funding.
  • Include the Environment: We need to ensure that Texas has water for both people and the environment.  Water projects can have a detrimental environmental impact.   Decision makers should take a close look at each proposed project to determine if it is designed to meet consumptive needs as well as protect or restore healthy river flows.  Projects that do both should be moved to the head of the prioritization list.
  • Public Participation: The public needs to be involved and ask hard questions about the economic and environmental viability of water projects.  Consumers need to know more about their water supply, where it comes from, how it is paid for and why that matters.  This enables this public to be advocates for rational water supply management.

There is no doubt that we must develop more water and the Sierra Club supports the legislature’s effort to deal with water infrastructure and supply challenges; however, it bears repeating, that we can’t simply build our way out of our water supply problem.

We need to change the way we use water in this state and embrace efficiency in all sectors.  While doing this we must also ensure that we provide water for our rivers, bays and estuaries to survive during droughts and thrive at other times.  These natural systems are irreplaceable and are very important to the state’s economy and are a part of our natural heritage.  Who hasn’t enjoyed Texas seafood with family or tubed or canoed on a favorite river?  These activities require water.  Let’s make sure it is there in the future.

Jennifer Walker

Water Resources Program Manager at Sierra Club - Lone Star Chapter
Jennifer has 15 years experience focusing on water policy issues in Texas with an emphasis on water planning, water conservation and bay and estuary protection issues. She and her family like to camp near rivers where they can listen to the frogs sing at night.

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