CREDIT: AP / Eric Gay
Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) is an unabashed ideologue. But sometimes even ideologues have to address practical matters practically.
Thus it is that Perry finds himself in the middle of the aisle for once, in support of something with widespread bipartisan political backing in Texas. It’s not about freedom or liberty, but another very important life-giving element: water.
This year, Perry signed three bills meant to provide funding for projects within the State Water Plan. Taken together, these bills propose an amendment to the Texas Constitution creating the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, or SWIFT.
With these bills Perry and other Texas politicians are showing they can do the math for the state’s future: water = economy. If Texas wants to keep attracting new business, it will have to keep providing ample water to keep companies and people moving to the state. Currently the state’s population is expected to soar about 80 percent from its current 25 million to 46 million in 50 years, with water demand projected to increase 22 percent.
At the same time, Texas is caught up in a cycle of drought, which has left reservoirs strained and rivers over-allocated. Another indicator of the high stakes in this game of water security is the fact that Texas is embroiled in legal battles over water rights with neighboring New Mexico, Oklahoma, and even Mexico.
Harsh water restrictions are currently in place from Midland, the heart of the current oil boom, to San Antonio. Earlier this month water officials in Austin declared the current drought to be the worst Central Texas has ever experienced. In the absence of substantial rain soon the city may need to pursue options such as banning all but hand-held outdoor watering and even curtailing the use of indoor water by next spring.
As of this week, 91 percent of the state is in drought.
The measure — known as Proposition 6 — would put $2 billion from the state’s savings account, or rainy day fund, into a new water bank administered by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to help finance water projects. This revolving fund would be used to reduce borrowing costs for municipalities in need of new water infrastructure.
Most of the financing will probably be for pipelines and water transportation infrastructure and not expensive new dams and reservoirs. Twenty percent of the money could be put towards conservation, such as reducing pipe leakage, and reuse projects. Another ten percent would help rural communities with projects like improving irrigation techniques.
Perry calls the efforts “a historic opportunity to fund water projects that will ensure we have the water we need to grow and thrive, for the next five decades.”
We’re talking about projects like new reservoirs, state-of-the-art desalination plants, and utilizing new technology to conserve and re-use current supplies. This is simply too vital an issue, and too narrow a window of opportunity, to come up short on the brink of meeting our water needs.
Some who oppose Proposition 6 have pointed out that Perry appointed the three new heads of the restructured Texas Water Development Board in charge of allocating the money from the potential fund. Perry is known for cronyism and people like Alyssa Burgin, executive director of the Texas Drought Project, see this as another way to pipe money into the hands of the usual profiteers rather than water to those in need. They argue that water projects will be used to bring water from rural and farming communities to urban areas where powerful developers can use it to their advantage.
But despite Perry’s support, the proposition isn’t law yet. It requires a change to the Texas constitution, which means Texas voters must first vote on the amendment on the November fifth ballot. And it turns out that Proposition 6, and the water future of Texas, is creating bipartisanship in the deep-red Lone Star State.
A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that Texans support the measure by more than a two to one margin, 52 percent to 19 percent, although nearly a quarter were yet to decide how they would vote on the issue.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Policy Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Texas Tribune, “To me, there was not a big surprise here. People reflexively support water funding. People are aware of the drought, we just got out of a hot summer … There was a decent amount of public discourse.”
Stark visuals such as those found at Lake Travis north of Austin also serve as a reminder of the state’s prolonged water woes. Lake Travis is one of a chain of seven reservoirs known as the Texas Highland Lakes that provide water to citizens, farmers and wildlife downstream. It also functions as a popular recreation area; one that’s much more popular when it’s not just one-third full, as it is now.
CREDIT: Oscar Ricardo Silva
In The Pipeline
The proposition has broad backing from industry, government, and agricultural interests. Ronald Kaiser, professor and chair of the Texas A&M University Water Program, described it as a way of taking local government and municipality water demands, often unwieldy and complex, and forcing them to prioritize.
“It’s like a Christmas wish list in which parents say you only get two or three of the things you want,” Kaiser said in a phone interview. “It’s a very sensible way of going about it. We’re using money to invest back in ourselves so we don’t have to borrow. If it’s cheaper to invest in yourself, why borrow money from the bank? We’re taking money from the savings account to make low interest investments.”
Texas releases a statewide water plan every five years, regardless of the political situation, that gathers information from local bodies across the state in an effort to establish what is needed to ensure enough water for public health and economic growth over the next 50 years. The most recent version, in 2012, called for $53 billion in infrastructure upgrades, including 562 unique water supply projects such as the construction of 20 new reservoirs. Similar plans have been proposed before but without an effective way to fund projects, or prioritize them, they haven’t made it very far.
Where Does It Flow?
While providing water for citizens is a responsibility of government, public oversight and awareness are critical in making sure the incentivized financing is not abused. The oil, gas, chemical, and construction industries in Texas are big water users; and though names like the Koch brothers don’t immediately harken to water resource management, it’s exactly such groups that support Proposition 6.
According to The Dallas Morning News, Water Texas, the premiere political action committee pushing Proposition 6, raised nearly $1 million in August and September. Of that money, the biggest contributors included: Associated General Contractors of Texas ($375,000), Dow Chemical ($250,000), Energy Future Holdings/Luminant ($100,000), Valero Energy Corp. PAC and LyondellBasell ($25,000), and Koch Industries, Inc. ($20,000).
These companies frequently use water-intensive technologies such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The EPA has estimated that the 35,000 oil and gas wells used for fracking consume between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water each year.
Widespread water usage extends beyond industry, however. In 2011, Texans consumed 18 times more water in keeping their grass green than the industry used in fracking projects.
Damming Up The Flow
But while conservative industry giants support the proposition, some consider the cost of meeting these water needs to be too high.
At a recent rally against the proposition, Heidi Thiess, a League City councilwoman and Tea Party activist, said state lawmakers, “are pulling a con on Texan taxpayers to cover [their] profligate overspending, and we aren’t going to let [them] get away with it again.”
What profligate overspending she was referring to is unclear — not the $4 billion in cuts to Texas public schools the state legislature passed on 2011, the first decrease in per-student spending in Texas since World War II. Or the $73.4 million cut that lawmakers made in 2011 to family planning that led to over 100 clinics closing (money that was quietly restored this year after the impacts on women’s health were felt).
Terri Hall, the founder of the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, lambasts spending money on an ice rink in a recent column called, “Public Drain For Private Gain: Proposition 6 Rural Water Raid To Benefit Developers.”
In the column she says, “taxpayers and ratepayers pick-up the tab for ‘gap funding’ between project implementation and sending customers their first bill.”
Actually, the money for Proposition 6 comes from a savings account made up of mostly oil and gas production taxes and sales taxes, which do not directly impact tax rates.
Certain conservative and independent groups, including Independent Texans and the Tea Party group “We Texans,” are campaigning against the amendment. They believe that, if passed, SWIFT would lead to more public debt without solving the state’s water problems.
Technically, these critics argue, the new amendment isn’t necessary because of an earlier measure passed in 2011, during the worst drought year on record, which raised the Development Board debt limit to $6 billion. Currently the board’s debt is still far below the $6 billion mark.
However, according to The Texas Tribune, this money is distinct from Proposition 6. It can only be used for loans, not to make projects more attractive by lowering interest rates or allowing deferred payments, as SWIFT can do.
There are also a few environmental groups that oppose the proposition for another reason: that it doesn’t focus enough on conservation measures. The local conservation group Save Our Springs thinks the funds are unnecessary and more should be done to conserve already-existing resources.
The same University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll that highlighted public support for the proposition also found that respondents who said they would support a Tea Party candidate for Congress were more likely to oppose Proposition 6 than those who prefer Republican or Democratic candidates. Twenty-eight percent of Tea Party voters oppose it, compared to only 16 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of Republicans.
“I don’t want to necessarily call the opposition Tea Party people,” Kaiser said. “These are people who are dubious of government, who want small government. They don’t see a role for government in water, which is really incomprehensible because in Texas the government provides most of the drinking water. I think there’s just a segment of the population that likes to say ‘no.’”
In the state that elected Sen. Ted Cruz (R), the ultimate naysayer on healthcare, spending, and government in general, this is hardly surprising.
But even the Tea Party-backed elected officials in Texas aren’t siding with the Tea Party on Proposition 6. According to Kaiser, not one single elected representative in the Texas legislature has come out in opposition to the measure.
“I jokingly say you need a drought, support at the gubernatorial level, and a budget surplus to get something to do with water passed,” Kaiser said. “It’s kind of the opposite of the perfect storm.”
It’s the perfect drought indeed. And thanks to climate change, there may only be more to come.
“Climate change, or climate variability, has conspired to bring the political parties together and unite people in water industry,” Kaiser said.