In 2016, Texas was one of the fastest growing states in the country, adding almost a half-million people in a year’s time. With growth like that, securing future water supplies will become critical, so Sen. Ted Cruz filed a bill to loosen regulations around importing water from other states. The idea is to make it easier for Texas to buy water from its neighbors. But some worry it could lead to environmental destruction.
To understand why the bill (and a companion bill in the House) was filed, it helps to know the story of the North Texas Municipal Water District.
The district pumps water from Lake Texoma on the Oklahoma border. One of its pumps is on the Oklahoma side. When an invasive species called the zebra mussel appeared in that lake in 2009, the district had to stop pumping water into Texas while it figured out a way to treat the water. The reason: A federal law called the Lacey Act prohibits the transport and sale of endangered and invasive species between states.
“Because of that, we were restricted from being able to move that water across state lines due to the discovery of zebra mussels in Lake Texoma,” Janet Rummel, a public relations officer with the water district, said.
But it was too late. The zebra mussels had already spread into North Texas.
Now, Sen. Cruz wants to change the rules about importing water. His bill would allow a state to buy water that contains invasive species from another state as long as those species are already present in the area.
“This bill would definitely help us in getting access to potential new supplies in the future," Rummel said, "and we are working with the Sabine River Authority on it."
The Sabine River sits on the Texas-Louisiana border, where a new pump station is being built. A partnership there, too, could be complicated by the Lacey Act.
While supporters of the bill say it will have minimal impact on the spread of invasive species, some scientists disagree. Thomas Hardy, a professor of environmental flows at Texas State University, said he’s confused by the bill given the fact that millions of dollars are spent battling zebra mussels in infected areas.
“Let’s say I’m here, and I’m trying to deal with zebra mussels very aggressively,” he said. “But somebody wants to transfer water to me, bringing me more zebra mussels. Why am I doing this when I can't win, because you’re continually re-infecting me?”
Opponents also argue the legislation could help carry invasive species to river basins in Texas that have not yet become infected.
That may not persuade those who see the spread of invasive species as inevitable. Zebra mussels, for example, have been appearing in more Texas lakes every year since their appearance in Lake Texoma.