Lawmakers tend to agree about the need to improve Texas’ water infrastructure, which saw most of its last massive projects completed three decades or more ago.
The 2011 drought, which was at its most crippling after the last legislative session ended, terrified constituents in both rural and urban areas, as wildfires burned, crops wilted, cattle died, and lawn sprinklers were shut off.
But when they return to Austin in January to take up state business, lawmakers seem likely to balk at putting aside the cash to pay for the billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements laid out in the state water plan. Interviews with lawmakers, lobbyists and environmental activists indicate that the political thorniness of raising or shifting revenue and the distractions posed by other issues, such as education, will make consensus difficult.
The financing issue splits two key Republican constituencies: Grassroots tea partiers, a driving force in Republican primaries who are generally opposed to any money-raising ploys; and deep-pocketed industries, a similar force among Republican donors, who badly want the state to build new reservoirs and pipelines so that they can build new power plants and new subdivisions.
The state water plan, released earlier this year, was unequivocal about the stakes: The state must spend $29 billion on water projects over the next 50 years, otherwise water shortages and drought could cost a million jobs over 50 years and hamper the economy.
Lawmakers may need two forms of money -- a one-time lump-sum kick-start and a smaller dedicated stream of money -- for a low-interest loan program administered by the state water development board.
The lump-sum money, which would have to be several hundred million dollars to make any serious dent in water infrastructure needs laid out in the state plan, could come from the state’s rainy day fund, which has at least $8 billion.
The dedicated money could come from a tax or fee, such as a tax on water bottles or a monthly tap fee. Or lawmakers could raid cash balances in other dedicated accounts. But that comes with its own headaches, including squaring off against interests that want that cash to remain in place for its original purpose.
The lawmaker stuck with trying to persuade his colleagues to do something about this is state Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, the easygoing chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, who likes to point out that even in his East Texas district, one of the wettest in the state, precipitation was down nearly 50 percent in 2011.
”People come up to me all the time now and ask me what we’re going to do if it doesn’t rain again,” he said.
Ritter appears to have an ally in Speaker Joe Straus, who has said that water issues are among his priorities.
Also in support, in the background, are the deep-pocketed types.
On Nov. 8, Bill Hammond, head of the Texas Association of Business, told a committee of lawmakers that they ought to place a $1.50 monthly fee on every water meter in the state. Hammond estimated that the fee would raise $150 million a year to encourage local governments to develop new water resources.
Texas businesses are part of a larger coalition, including utilities and homebuilders, called H2O4Texas. Riding herd are former staffers to Kip Averitt, the retired Waco senator who is now lobbying his former colleagues on behalf of engineers and water authorities.
Ritter’s efforts found little traction last session.
”The difference now is we had a horrendous drought last year that raised eyebrows,” Averitt said. ”If we had another summer like we did last summer, we’d be in disaster stage. I don’t think members of the Legislature want that on their back. They’re going to be held accountable for water. There’s no need for an income tax or property tax to get the job done. Just a couple of cents here and there.”