Water once again is the talk of the town as the state’s Republican leadership, reluctant to even touch the Rainy Day Fund two years ago, now appear to be ready to draw it down by $4 billion for water and transportation projects.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs said so not once, but twice at last week’s San Antonio Clean Technology Forum at the Pearl Stable.

“It’s very likely,” she said.

As Combs spoke from a stage in San Antonio, Gov. Rick Perry was delivering the State of the State address to legislators in Austin. He suggested a withdrawal of $3.7 billion, but seemed to speaking from the same talking points.

My guess is that last November’s election results, and a business community increasingly worried about the state’s lack of infrastructure investment finally added up to a surprising and most welcome turnaround at the top.

Bravo. Believe it or not, $2 billion for water projects won’t go very far. It’s a great start, but still a drop in the bucket.

Click to download the Management Plan.
Click to download the Management Plan.

Of all the comprehensive reports and strategic planning documents gathering dust on the shelves of elected officials, none is more important than the 2012 State Water Plan.  The Plan was adopted by the Texas Water Development Board on Dec. 15, 2011 and sent to Perry on Jan. 5, 2012.

Longtime San Antonio water expert Weir Labatt, whose term has since expired, was a member of the state water board that produced the plan.

Nothing has happened since the board delivered the plan to Perry. Truth is, the Texas Legislature has done very little in contemporary times  to fund water conservation or management, or to modernize  the patchwork of water districts that oversee regional water management.

Texas Water District/Authorities Map courtesy of the Texas Water Development Board.
Texas Water District/Authorities map courtesy of the Texas Water Development Board.

Most of Texas has too little water, but some parts have more than enough. The lack of state oversight means that even in the wettest years, when water could be moved and stored without negative consequence to source community, there still are no interbasin transfers in Texas. Neither the governor nor the Legislature are inclined to take on rural East Texas interests that preside over surface and ground water supplies in excess of their needs. Water districts by nature are territorial about ground water. The result? A balkanized state unable or unwilling to implement statewide water conservation and management strategies.

“Finally, we would like to thank the leadership of the state of Texas for their consistent support and recognition of the importance of water planning,” the closing line of the 2012 plan states.

The historic drought of 2011 finally has Republicans joining their Democratic counterparts in saying that Texas can no longer afford business as usual. In other words, expectations are high that the 83rd Texas Legislature, which went into session on Jan. 8, will allocate funds to finance real water projects that Perry will support. Why is this so important? It would be hard to improve on the ominous warning found in the plan’s executive summary:

“The primary message of the 2012 State Water Plan is a simple one: In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises. This plan presents the information regarding the recommended conservation and other types of water management strategies that would be necessary to meet the state’s needs in drought conditions, the cost of such strategies, and estimates of the state’s financial assistance that would be required to implement these strategies. The plan also presents the sobering news of the economic losses likely to occur if these water supply needs cannot be met. As the state continues to experience rapid growth and declining water supplies, implementation of the plan is crucial to ensure public health, safety, and welfare and economic development in the state.”

“The 2012 plan is a beautiful document but  the state doesn’t sponsor a single project in the water plan,” Labatt said. “Anything happening is sponsored by local or regional jurisdictions, and therefore, everybody is now placing all the emphasis on Austin for funding. And I think the major problem is not moving water around the state.”

Under the proposed plan being discussed in Austin, the money withdrawn from the Rainy Day Fund would be used to establish a revolving line of credit for local entities to draw on for improvement projects and then repay the funds to the state over time.

Weir Labatt
Weir Labatt

“I think the revolving fund idea is the best way to do it,” Labatt said. “You can recycle money just like we recycle water.”

The State Water Plan is for water supply projects only and they add up to $51 billion. Most of the plan will probably never get approved, especially the 26 reservoirs, which are opposed by an unusual coalition of  environmental groups and and land owners. The report also covers the $250 billion in unfunded wastewater projects that have been identified statewide.

I asked Labatt what he thought would have happened had voters approved the construction of the Applewhite reservoir here in the 1990s.

“Applewhite today would be part of San Antonio’s diversified water portfolio, adding up to 70,000 acre-feet of water when it was full,” he said. “It wasn’t the greatest water project in the world, but it would have helped. When SAWS lost that fight, their willingness to go after non-Edward’s (aquifer) water was really blunted. In fact there is no proposed reservoir in Region L in the plan because there is no political will.”

I reminded him of what Medina Lake looks like these days, and asked whether Applewhite might have suffered the same problems with inadequate supply.

“Medina Lake might be a mud hole now, but it’s supplied a lot of water to a lot of people, and accounted for 40,000 acre-feet of recharge to the Edwards Aquifer each year,” he said.

Lyle Larson
Texas State Representative Lyle Larson.

A second public official from San Antonio, state Rep. Lyle Larson, the Republican who represents District 122, has developed substantial  expertise in state water issues in a relatively short period of time, taking it upon himself to drive to the far corners of the state to learn more about the patchwork network of regional water authorities and local views toward water management and interbasin cooperation.

Larson, a former an Antonio City Councilman and Bexar County Commissioner, was an early voice – possibly his party’s earliest voice – advocating use of the Rainy Day Fund to underwrite water projects. I don’t know when I first heard him float the idea, but it was last year, long before the party’s leaders joined in.

House Speaker Joe Straus was the first top officials to support making water an important agenda item this session. I remember last year thinking it was a gutsy move by Larson, only a second-term rep, calling so forcefully for use of the Rainy Day Fund when others were not behind him. Too often maverick voices get punished by the party leadership for wandering of message and embarrassing the leadership.

“We have to start building projects today in response to the drought of 2011,” Larson told me last week. “Our state’s economic viability is hinging on the actions of the leaders in Austin. The leaders that experienced the drought of the 1950’s  built projects that are holding 65% of our surface water today. The legacy of today’s leadership will be determined based on our response to a similar event. Using money out of the Rainy Day Fund to catalyze the construction of water projects in our state is our only option.”

Increased voter awareness of the State Water Plan would be a good start. I mentioned the plan at last week’s Clean Tech Forum on the Eagle Ford shale play. Afterwards, several audience members approached me and said they had never heard of the plan. If voters become more familiar with it, officeholders might become more sensitive to reading it themselves and not leaving it on the shelf to gather dust.

The 2012 State Water Plan is the ninth such plan produced since 1961, when two-thirds of all Texans lived in a rural setting, and nearly 80% of the state’s nine million people got their water from wells. There are 25 million Texans now, most living in cities, and most of them depending on utilities for their water supply and wastewater treatment.

Since 1967, the State Water Plan has been based on the work and reporting of 16 regional water authorities (see map above), a change that has given the plan a more comprehensive quality, yet in 45 years of such work, the state still has not devised ways of sharing water around the state between regions are either too dry or too wet.

Past population growth and the state’s transformation from a rural to an urban state are of less concern to modern-day water planners and experts than what will happen in the state between now and the next record drought.

There hasn’t been any rain in the last week, but it’s still been a good week for anyone who cares about the state’s water future. Finally, there are rumblings in Austin that the political leadership will act before it’s too late.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related stories on the Rivard Report:

Eagle Ford Forum II: Sustaining the Boom and Averting the Bust January 2013

Eagle Ford Heyday: Economic Boom Obscures Long-Term Issues December 2012

The Texas Lege: Do the Right Thing, Please January 2013

Higher Water Rates for a Sustainable Future October 2012

‘Old Man Water’: A Longtime Observer Surveys the San Antonio Landscape October 2012

Private Lands/Public Benefits: Farmland = Drinking Water November 2012

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.