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Texas deploys its 'rainy day fund' to start long-term fight against drought

AUSTIN, Texas -- Concerned about its continuing drought, the Lone Star State is embarking upon a multi-decade effort to increase water supplies and make it more resilient to the dry spells that climate scientists say will become more frequent.

Though many conservative lawmakers here still shy from acknowledging climate change, they took decisive action to address it last week when the state's House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to support the Texas Water Development Board's (TWDB) statewide water plan.

That plan, completed last year, recommends new reservoirs, pipeline infrastructure, conservation efforts to preserve groundwater and other initiatives to quench this fast-growing state's need for future supplies of fresh water.

To a round of applause, 146 state legislators approved H.B. 4, which would finance a new fund to begin investing in new infrastructure and other projects by dipping into the state's so-called rainy day fund. The $2 billion that would be taken from the rainy day fund for the water plan is just a down payment toward TWDB's call for some $53 billion in spending over the next 40 years, $27 billion of which is expected to come directly from the state government.

The Texas Senate will next take up the bill, likely starting this week. Most expect the plan to sail through that side of the Legislature.

Though many of the proposed reservoir projects seem destined to spark controversy, environmental groups are generally pleased with the fact that the bill passed by the House calls for 20 percent of funding to be spent directly toward water conservation projects, a first for Texas.

Rep. Allan Ritter, chairman of the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, which drafted H.B. 4, said the bill "recognizes the importance of conservation in use."

"If we don't act, we'd be 8.6 million acre-feet short by 2050," Ritter told the packed House chamber. He said the move to finance the plan from the rainy day fund, creating a separate financing mechanism that does not rely on general revenue, was a "fiscally prudent system" that wouldn't burden future taxpayers.

Another lawmaker's effort to weaken that 20 percent carve-out on the day of the vote failed to pass. Two House representatives voted against the Natural Resources Committee bill.

Water conservation gains priority

Though supportive of massive new water infrastructure projects, mainly to maintain supplies for urban areas, the TWDB plan estimates that the state must secure at least 22 percent of its future water needs via conservation. Ideas abound, but earlier proposals include tax incentives for water conservation on private land and reforms to how water is used in agriculture.

Austin has also been taking smaller measures to address the drought worries, which came to a head during the severe 2011 drought that devastated agriculture and left some municipalities almost completely dry.

Earlier last month, the Texas Senate passed a separate bill prohibiting homeowners associations from banning the use of native grasses for lawns. By encouraging homeowners to plant drought-resistant native species for landscaping use, Texas cities hope that they can curtail lawn watering, a major draw on municipal water supplies.

Environmental organizations tried but failed to get a conservation carve-out even higher than 20 percent. Another proposal to ban state funding for a controversial reservoir that may be built in northeast Texas never made it to the floor.

But environmentalists are mainly applauding the Texas Legislature's unprecedented prioritization of conservation as a source of future water supplies.

"We can't control when it rains, but we can control how we use water," said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. "State funding can help cut water waste, improve water conservation and steer Texas toward a more sustainable water future."

Research by Environment Texas suggests that various proposals to reduce water use in urban landscaping and agriculture and for energy production would save 500 billion gallons of water annually by 2020. But legislation moving forward doesn't address any specific conservation measures that could be taken.

That will be the job of the 16 regional water planning groups active across the state, using the TWDB's plan as a template. These regional planning districts are charged with assessing those parts of the plan that pertain to their district, weighing the pros and cons of various proposals and figuring out how to pay for and implement those parts of the plans that they would like to pursue.

Expensive plans for reservoirs

Many regions hit hard by the 2011 drought are looking at building desalinization plants that would convert brackish, salty groundwater into potable water for municipal use. A similar system already supplies El Paso with its water.

Other ideas are being floated during this process.

"What about something akin to a non-attainment zone for water?" asks Kate Zerrenner, a specialist at the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a recent blog post reviewing a central Texas environmental workshop she attended. "I'm not suggesting that EPA impose restrictions, but it should be made clear to chambers of commerce that it is in their best interest to promote and encourage water and energy conservation and efficiency because no business will want to be located in a region lacking available water and electricity. They will set up shop in states that are managing their supplies."

But others are looking to another round of a massive build-out of reservoirs, something the state went through after its decadelong "drought of record" experienced in the 1950s.

The TWDB plan sees up to 26 massive new reservoirs being built at a cost of more than $13 billion. No one expects all of these to be built, but activists are preparing to fight some proposals.

The one most in the cross hairs of environmental groups is the Marvin Nichols Reservoir, which would increase supplies to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, one of the fastest growing urban centers in the country. Environment Texas, the Sierra Club and other groups loudly oppose that project, complaining that it would flood some 30,000 acres of hardwood forest alongside the Sulphur River.

Other interest groups, in particular logging companies and private landowners, may join environmentalists in opposition to Marvin Nichols. Activists say that project would also destroy some 42,000 acres of farmland and ranchland and some mixed forest areas.

Is conservation better than evaporation?

Activists are also fighting the Lake Ralph Hall reservoir project near Dallas. Groups argue that the metroplex's future water needs can easily be met through conservation projects that would save hundreds of millions of dollars over expensive water infrastructure. And some groups estimate that, during summers, Texas loses more water from reservoirs through evaporation than what the adjacent cities actually use.

Others complain that the Dallas-Fort Worth region is already surrounded by reservoirs, many of which aren't fully utilized. Though water levels in reservoirs there dropped precipitously in 2011, the northeast Texas cities were never in danger of running dry, even at the height of the summer, when Texas suffered a string of record-breaking high temperatures.

But despite the pressing emphasis on conservation methods, most acknowledge that many of the 26 possible reservoir projects will be completed. Arid West Texas is looking to build a few. The cities of San Angelo, Abilene and Midland are also pursuing ideas for reservoirs.

And one of the state's largest water agencies that supplies the Austin area, the Lower Colorado River Authority, has plans for a reservoir that would help rice farmers along the Texas Gulf Coast. Many of those farmers lost their water drawing rights for the first time as a consequence of the 2011 drought.

Texas' government fears a continuation of drought this year, as well.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last week reported that areas along the Rio Grande in the south, much of the Panhandle and north-central Texas are currently experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions. The Houston region, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio are believed to now be in moderate to severe droughts.

The plan nearing final approval in Austin doesn't represent the end of the planning process for addressing future water needs, but rather the beginning.

TWDB review's water needs planning every five years, and it is expected to take another look at its own water plan in 2017. And the 16 regional planning authorities are expected to begin reviewing the proposals put forth for their jurisdictions, a process likely to include much back-and-forth with private companies, environmental groups, state agencies and the public.

But the fact that one-fifth of funds to be spent must be directed toward conservation is a big win for many here who are weary of massive infrastructure spending that they believe benefits mainly commercial interests.

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