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New Texas House caucus highlights seriousness of state’s water woes

Tap water flows from a residential kitchen sink faucet in Austin, TX on Nov. 3, 2022. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Gabriel C. Pérez
Tap water flows from a residential kitchen sink faucet in Austin on Nov. 3, 2022.

In recent years, water woes in Texas have gotten worse.

Water is becoming more scarce and more valuable, with the situation exacerbated by climate change. And while cloud seeding has been around for a while, more sophisticated forms of seeding and new technologies for dealing with water shortages can’t seem to come fast enough.

In a reflection of how serious this issue has become, a new caucus this year in the Texas House will focus on water. The bipartisan group of lawmakers is working to shore up sorely needed upgrades to the state’s water infrastructure by providing aid to rural and mid-sized communities that often lack funding. Larger cities, like Houston, would also stand to benefit.

Democratic Rep. Tracy King, chairman of the House Water Caucus, joined Texas Standard to talk about the plan and other water-related issues the caucus will focus on. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Let’s talk a bit about how this group came together. How many members are in this House Water Caucus, and why now? 

Tracy King: Well, let me say that we have, as of Monday, Feb. 13, 71 members. Obviously, it’s a bipartisan group that’s made up of different members of the Legislature.

Well, how did they come together in the first place? Did you guys have a meeting down in the canteen and talk about the need for this, or were constituents demanding it, or what, exactly? 

Well, of course, you know, we don’t have those meetings in the canteen. Different members that work on water issues, but primarily the Texas Water Foundation, have been pushing for a caucus for several years. Also the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, which is the Water Committee. And they came to me during the interim before the legislative session and told me that they were ready to start promoting this water caucus and they had the technology to do it and the funding to achieve their educational goals and those types of things. And so I agreed to help them start this caucus. And so we put the word out amongst the membership that we were going to form a caucus and filed the paperwork that we had to file with it. And it was created, and members started joining right away. We had a meeting and they elected me chairman of the caucus, and we’ve had a couple of meetings since then. But there’s always an educational portion of the meetings.

What exactly is it that you’re hoping to accomplish? I’m wondering if there was a specific issue that someone brought to the table and they said, “well, we need to have a caucus to get this one through.”

You know, that’s typically the way caucuses do start. You’re absolutely correct. But in this particular case, it was just the ongoing drought that we’ve been seeing in the state of Texas and the numerous boil water notices and the reservoirs that are declining and declining water tables in the aquifers – the underground aquifers and those types of things. It was a combination of factors. Of course, it all had to do with water supply and water security.

Well, you think about how much control we have over that resource. Some would say precious little, especially given that we’re still relying on a lot of the technologies of the past to try to get more water here in Texas. I’m curious, what can the caucus bring to bear on this issue? 

So you shine a light on it, is what the goal is. You increase people’s awareness of how desperate or how important this situation is right now. And there’s a real value to that, to making people aware of it. And another big goal of the caucus is there’s a real movement right now to create a fund to deal with the aging infrastructure in the small and rural communities. But even in the midsize cities and then large cities. I mean, there’s something for all size communities there. But the amount of water that is lost to leaky pipes and those types of things throughout the state of Texas is enormous.

Let’s talk a little bit about that, then. I mean, when you talk about a fund, would this be public money going into it? Would you be soliciting donations? What exactly do you have in mind?

All of that. I mean, the fund, of course, will require a constitutional amendment from the voters to create and then hopefully the State of Texas will put some initial funding into it. But it will be able to accept money from donations and from different types of sources like that.

I wonder if you can give us an example of what you imagine this fund actually doing. Would it be like, for instance, Harris County comes knocking on the door saying “look, we have all of these infrastructure needs – can you give us the money that’s required to to pay for it?” Is that the sort of thing? 

Well, that is the sort of thing. Of course, we already have another fund called the SWIFT Fund that’s part of the Texas Water Development Board. But it’s more of a revolving loan-type fund where they actually brought in large sums of money that they need to do infrastructure projects. And that’s what the larger communities have been using all along.

But let’s just take, for example, I represent some of the small communities in South Texas in a six-county district, and some of them simply have infrastructure supply lines and distribution lines that might be 75 years old. And when you go to try and replace them and they’re constantly got breaks in the lines and losing a lot of water, they would come to this water fund and they would put out a proposal – put in a request to receive some money – and part of it’d be loans, and part of it’d be grants.

We often say gasoline is a kind of lifeblood for the state. But clearly, water trumps gasoline when you get right down to it, because without water, really nothing can flow in Texas. And I guess I’m a little curious as to why this is just now happening. I mean, you mention that there’s infrastructure out there that’s 75 years old or older in some places, especially in rural Texas. Why this is finally coming around now? 

Well, there’s always been water bills. We had Senate Bill 1 and we had Senate Bill 2. And so there’s always been big pushes to create water supply throughout the state of Texas. But, you know, a lot of this infrastructure was put in 75 or 80 years ago in these cities as they were they were starting to develop. And so, you know, those small communities are using local taxpayer money to repair and maintain those, and that’s in limited supply, also. And so a lot of times it’s human nature – they fix things when when they start breaking.

I know that it’s early days for the caucus, but what’s your sense of how much it would take to get Texas’ water infrastructure up to speed?

So we do water planning in Texas. We look 50 years out. We try to plan for the next 50 years. And that’s because, for example, if you’re going to build a reservoir, it takes almost that long to get all the permitting and everything done and all the land acquired and that type of thing. But there’s some very, very large numbers out there that, you know, in a perfect world, if money was no object and you wanted to completely replace the infrastructure and make it all good and that type of thing … I mean, you’re looking at a very, very large number.

Well, this might seem like a perfect time. I mean, we’ve been reporting on the state’s budget surplus quite a bit. Of course, there are a lot of folks trying to angle for some of that surplus, too. And I’m wondering what sort of reception you’re already getting to this effort to try to put aside a fund just for water.

Actually I’ve been pleasantly surprised that we’ve gotten a good reception both in the House and in the Senate, and from the public at large. There’s been some polling done that shows that well over 85% or right around 85% of the public would support a water infrastructure fund of several billion dollars.

You think we’re going to see something like this go to the voters? I guess it would have to go to the voters if we’re talking about some kind of some kind of constitutional change, right? 

Yes, that’s true. And I think we will see something. I think we’ll be able to come up with something, and the devil’s in the details, as they always say. But I believe that the Legislature will be able to pass something and be able to put it before the voters.

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