Texans passed a constitutional amendment Tuesday to jump-start financing for water projects in the state: Proposition 6, which would take $2 billion in surplus state money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to start a water infrastructure loan program. The measure had widespread support from both sides of the aisle as well as business and environmental groups. With over half of precincts reporting, the measure is passing with 75 percent of the vote and has been called by the Associated Press.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the members of the legislature who worked in a collaborative way on a very positive agenda for planning for our future water needs,” Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said at a rally celebrating the amendment’s passage Tuesday evening. “But the people of Texas today validated our good work with an overwhelming vote of support.” Some Libertarian and smaller environmental groups were vocally against the measure.
The creation of the water fund, overseen by the Texas Water Development Board, represents the first time in decades that the state has put significant money towards water infrastructure. The $2 billion approved this week will act like a down-payment on a mortgage that will allow the state to borrow billions more for hundreds of water projects outlined in its official Water Plan. Those projects aim to provide enough water to meet the state’s needs over the next fifty years.
“The problem is, we’ve never funded the water plan,” notes Paul Burka, Senior Executive Editor with Texas Monthly, who has spent decades covering the issue. “We’ve had these huge droughts but we haven’t funded it at all.” That is set to change after this week’s vote.
“It really underscored how precarious our future is when it comes to water, and how crucial it is that we shift towards a more moderate, water-efficient future,” says Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. Roughly a third of the funding in the programs are set to go towards conservation projects, an aspect of the plan that helped win support from many environmental groups.
The Texas Water Development Board has a few years to figure out how projects will be prioritized and approved, and what kinds of projects will fit the “conservation” label.
“Now the real work begins,” said Ken Kramer, Water Resources Chair, Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club in a statement. “Texans need to become actively involved in regional water planning and in local government water supply decisions to make sure that the potential for Prop 6 to advance water conservation and enhance water planning is achieved.”
“The people who claimed that this was for conservation were talking about all these great conservation projects,” Linda Curtis, director of the Libertarian group Independent Texans, said at a small rally opposing the measure in Austin Tuesday evening. “Had they prioritized conservation and guaranteed it, we would have been supporting it. Because that’s the best, cheapest way to handle water at this point.”
Another lingering concern will be the amount of power in the hands of three gubernatorial appointees, all tied to Rick Perry.
“The mistake that was made here was that they gave the Governor too much control over this,” Burka of Texas Monthlysays. “There’s going to be a lot of suspicion about it, a lot of distrust. I do not trust anything — anything — Rick Perry does.”
There will be an Advisory Committee charged with oversight of the Water Development Board. That committee will be composed of three appointees by the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House, as well as a spot for the Comptroller. But how exactly that committee will function — and how much power it will have — is an open question, a matter that will occupy the rulemaking process over the next few years. Groups like Independent Texans were against the measure because of what they call the “cronyism” of the new leadership of the Water Development Board.
“This vote marks an important first step in securing our state’s future, but the work is far from over,” Laura Huffman, Texas State Director of The Nature Conservancy, said in an email statement. “We will all have to stay engaged as our communities consider strategies and projects for addressing water needs. Tackling conservation first, to reduce our water use in cities, agriculture, energy and industry will be the cheapest and smartest way to stretch our water supplies.”
And as for when the shovels and water-efficient sprinklers come out? That will likely take even longer. The board isn’t set to finalize its process for approving loans until early 2015.
Mose Buchele and Michael Marks contributed reporting.