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Texas Senate moves to set aside billions for future water needs

By Erin Douglas and Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune

Texas Senate moves to set aside billions for future water needs” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas senators on Monday unanimously approved a legislative package that could set aside billions of dollars to acquire new water sources and — if approved by voters — pay for upgrades to the state’s aging water infrastructure.

Senate Bill 28 and Senate Joint Resolution 75, authored by Lubbock Republican Charles Perry, would create a new water supply fund administered by the Texas Water Development Board. That fund would pay for new water supply projects, including desalination projects and imports of water from other states. The bill would also set aside dollars to upgrade water infrastructure, especially in rural communities.

“Senate Bill 28 creates a pathway to funding water projects that our grandkids will be around for,” Perry said Monday on the floor of the Senate.

The goals of the funds, he said, are to fix the state’s leaking and breaking water infrastructure as well as accelerate new, large water supply projects.

Perry has suggested billions would be devoted to the fund if signed into law, but he did not specify how much of that money would go toward new water supply projects versus infrastructure improvements. Together, the dollars would target upgrades for small rural water supply systems at risk of failing and provide a boost to what Perry calls “bold” water supply projects that rely on new technology and may cost more upfront than traditional methods.

Water advocacy groups have estimated that the fund needs to include an initial investment of at least $3 billion to $5 billion to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure and projected water shortage.

Last summer, extreme heat coupled with an intense drought, the worst in a decade, and pushed the state’s water supplies to the brink. Water levels in reservoirs across the state fell to a fraction of their capacity, prompting hundreds of mandatory water restrictions for residents. Although the drought has eased since the fall, 65% of the state remains in a drought.

Surface water — mainly rivers and reservoirs — accounts for roughly half of Texas’ existing water supply, and is increasingly susceptible to the effects of climate change as temperatures rise, accelerating evaporation.

“The voters need to know we are thinking long-term about water supply,” Perry said during a Senate Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee hearing on March 20. “I would be shocked if it’s not supported in a big way.”

Perry has said he favors solutions beyond building more reservoirs because he’s concerned with the feasibility of building more dams that are often delayed by financing, environmental regulations and local opposition. In particular, Perry said the fund would benefit desalination projects for brackish and “produced” water, which is briny and contaminated water that comes up from the ground in the process of oil fracking.

Some Texas water advocates say there is insufficient data on the safety of decontaminating produced water. Environmental groups have also raised concerns about the need for sufficient environmental protections for marine desalination plant discharge.

“I totally understand the need for water supply solutions in Texas,’” said Alex Ortiz, water resources specialist at Texas’ chapter of The Sierra Club. But, he added, “we really have a lot of work to do, still, in terms of protecting human health, the environment, and wildlife.”

Problems with Texas’ water infrastructure have come into focus for Texans in recent years after 14.9 million Texans faced water disruptions during the 2021 winter storm that prompted near-statewide power outages. Water treatment plants that lost power were unable to ensure water was safe; at the same time, millions of Texans dripping their pipes in the freezing weather caused water pressure across the systems to drop to dangerously low levels.

But boil-water notices are not infrequent outside of the winter storm: More than 2,000 boil-water notices were issued in Texas last year, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The notices can be issued for a variety of reasons, but they’re often related to faulty infrastructure. Aging pipes coupled with drought can cause pipes to leak, which can cause tap water contamination.

Leaks also result in water loss. Texas lost an estimated 136 billion gallons of water in 2020 and 132 billion gallons of water in 2021, according to water loss audit data submitted by public water suppliers to the Texas Water Development Board. Data is not yet available for 2022.

Rural parts of Texas are especially vulnerable to aging infrastructure. According to an analysis by The Texas Tribune, seven of the 10 water entities that issued the most notices last year were in rural East Texas. Rural water systems often lack the resources to apply for grant funding. Under SB 28, the Texas Water Development Board would be able to use the funds to contract out technical assistance to help rural communities fix their water systems.

During the first two months of 2023, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was notified about more than 500 boil-water notices.

Part of the legislation being spearheaded by Perry this session would require voter approval, which if passed by voters, could go into effect as early as Jan. 1, 2024. A companion bill to Perry’s, House Bill 10 by state Rep. Tracy King, is currently in the House Natural Resources committee. If the proposals are signed into law, Texas voters will decide during a fall election whether the funds are created.

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