Environment Texas
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Lawmakers strike deal on water plan but need voters to sign off on the funding
Nicholas Sakelaris

The 2011 drought was a wake-up call for many Texans. But not Mark Ellison.

He remembers, as a boy, dipping a bucket in a well for drinking water every week or so on his family's farm near Rosebud in Central Texas. Water for cleaning and other needs came from a pond they shared with another family He was born in 1957, just as the longest drought of record ended in Texas.

"People in the 1960s were still very sensitive to the scarcity of water," Ellison said, speaking to a crowd of about 100 people gathered for the southwest region WaterVation conference last month. "If you were in agriculture like our family was?where are you going to get your water? Was that well going to go dry?"

Today, water supply remains a top concern for residents and businesses. Texas needs more water reservoirs, pipes and pumps to quench the thirst of its booming population. Doing so will require infrastructure projects worth billions of dollars. Not doing so means losing out on the economic development opportunities that come from welcoming more businesses and consumers to the state.

For example, region C, which includes much of Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties, is expected to add 2.4 million people from 2020 to 2040, requiring another 400,000 acre feet of water (more than 130 billion gallons) to meet demand, according to Texas Water Development Board.

McKinney alone is expected to add more than 142,000 people from 2020 to 2040, pushing the demand for municipal water there up by more than 30,000 acre feet, or more than 9.7 billion gallons.

"We really have some areas that we serve that are experiencing tremendous growth right now," said Denise Hickey, public relations coordinator for the North Texas Municipal Water District. "Without meeting those future water needs, we could have some great economic impacts to our region."

Water planners have known for this for decades and have worked since 1997 to develop a State Water Plan that meets the state's needs for the next 50 years. The question, until recently, has been funding.

As the state legislative session wound down, lawmakers approved, and Gov. Rick Perry signed, a trio of bills that establish the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, or SWIFT.

"It was a historic day for Texas and for water," said Heather Harward, executive director of the nonprofit H204Texas, which advocates in favor of funding the state's water plan. "I believe this legislative package is the single most important thing facing the 83rd Legislature in both protecting our water resources today and for future generations of Texans."

The plan is to fill the fund with $2 billion in cash from the state's $8.1 billion Rainy Day Fund, flush with cash from the booming oil and gas industry That requires a constitutional amendment, which voters will consider in November.

If voters say yes, that initial $2 billion will be used for revolving, low-interest loans that over the course of decades will pay for approximately $27 billion in water projects around the state. More than $30 billion will come from other sources, including private equity.

"We are contacted every day by private equity funds from around the world who want to invest in the Texas water infrastructure plan," said Ellison, who serves as WATER, P18 the liaison between the Texas Water Development Board and Gov. Rick Perry's office.

"It's being done in other parts of the world and so that's going to be an element of it. That's new dollars coming into Texas."

The state water plan isn't exclusively about building new sources. The Legislature added a stipulation that 20 percent of SWIFT go toward water conservation projects. Another 10 percent will be allocated toward agricultural projects.

"It's actually bigger than just engineering," said Andy Sansom, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas Sate University in San Marcos. "We're going to have to make a much bigger commitment to water conservation."

Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger said spending money on conservation-related projects gives the "most bang for the buck."

"I think this has been a long time coming. For almost 16 years the legislature's been talking about the state water plan and funding it," he said.

Rain doesn't wash away drought

Statewide, water reservoirs are at the lowest levels for this time of year, 66 percent capacity, since at least 1990 and the summer isn't even here yet, according to the Texas Water Development Board. The past two years, the reservoirs were around 75 percent capacity at this time of year. The previous lowpoint was in late 2011, when reservoirs dipped below 60 percent.

"We've got areas of the state where there's a severe drought," Ellison said.

For North Texas, the drought started a few weeks after Tropical Storm Hermine blew through in September 2010. In the 32 months since then, rainfall has been down about 20 percent from normal levels, said Victor Murphy, a climate service program manager at the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth.

The drought intensifies in West Texas, the panhandle region and the Rio Grande Valley area, Murphy said.

"We've gotten just enough rain to avert some of the real bad impacts that have hit other parts of the state," he said.

This week, North Texas cities that weren't already under water restrictions began observing them again. Recent rains have not been enough to maintain water levels for the lakes that supply tap water.

The North Texas Municipal Water District started enforcing Stage 3 restrictions, which limit watering to once every seven days, on June 1. The Tarrant Regional Water District, which provides water to most cities in that county, entered Stage 1 restrictions June 3. Outdoor watering is limited to twice a week for all customers. It also puts limits on draining and filling swimming pools and encourages restaurants to only serve water upon request.

Dallas residents have been under a permanent twice-weekly watering schedule since April 2012 that doesn't get lifted in response to drought.

Water planning is critical not only for metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth but for rural areas that are suddenly booming with drilling activity, such as the Eagle Ford in South Texas and the Permian Basin in West Texas. The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, ranked Midland as the fastest growing metro area when it posted a 4.6 percent population spike from July 2011 to July 2012.

"They never had any idea what the impact of shale oil and gas formations was going to have," Ellison said. "Who knew that it was going to grow at the pace that it has?"