Environment Texas
Abilene Reporter-News
Matthew Waller

A bill that is providing $2 billion in loan money for Texas water projects got the governor's signature Tuesday, meaning that voters will decide in the fall whether to create the water project bank.

House Bill 4 from Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, received its final clearance unpacked governor's reception room for the public signing.

"This is making history," Gov. Rick Perry said at a podium, flanked with legislative leaders and pointperson lawmakers. "We're securing the future of our great state by making sure that Texas has the water it needs for decades to come. This is a story for Texas families. This is a story for Texas businesses. Water is a critical part of maintaining the health of our economy and our community."

The $2 billion amount is what lawmakers and officials believe is needed to fund the 2012 State Water Plan. The plan states that Texas will need $53 billion in projects such as pipelines and reservoirs to withstand heavy drought. The state would need to provide about $27 billion. Loaning out the $2 billion and having communities pay it back at state subsidized rates could cover that gap over 50 years, lawmakers have said.

"I've never been part of a piece of legislation that I believe will have the lasting impact on the people of the state of Texas that this bill has," Sen Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said. Fraser carried the Senate version of the bill. He and Ritter met together every week of the session, which began in January, to work out the fund.

The bill changes the board of the Texas Water Development Board, which would go from having a six-member part-time board to a board with three full-time members, one of which would come from rural Texas.

The fund would require that 10 percent of the fund go to rural purposes, and 20 percent of the fund go toward conservation and reuse projects.

"The drought has underscored that we can't continue with business as usual, and HB 4 wisely makes a big increase in conservation as a strategy toward meeting Texas' water needs," a release from Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger states.

The money would come from the Rainy Day Fund, properly called the Economic Stabilization Fund, which gets its income from oil and gas extraction taxes. The fund could have $11.8 billion by the end of 2015. Lawmakers debated using the fund for a variety of purposes, including transportation, wildfire relief and education. Conservative House representatives expressed concerns that drawing down the fund too much would hurt the state's bond credit rating.

HB 4 will become law effective Sept. 1. Since the fund requires a constitutional amendment as established in a separate piece of legislation, voters will decide whether to actually have the fund in the next general election.

About 90 percent of the state is in some level of drought, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Drought Monitor.