With its rich and complicated water history, San Antonio could play a substantial role in how state water challenges are addressed this legislative session, even without former State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), long considered one of the state’s most influential water champions.
That’s the view of SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente, himself a former legislator who focused on water issues, and who now serves as chairman of the Texas Water Foundation, the organization behind the creation of the first-ever House Water Caucus.
Puente said the caucus has been decades in the making; it was something he pushed for while he was in office from 1993 through 2008.
The 44-member caucus, which includes San Antonio Reps. Steve Allison and Liz Campos, met for the first time Wednesday. Neither responded to requests for comment about the caucus.
The goal of caucus is to educate members about the critical water issues facing the state, with an eye toward using some of the $188 billion available for the next budget to help secure Texas’ water future.
“One thing that I think that we have here in Bexar County, over a lot of other delegations, is our water knowledge,” Puente said. “We’ve had so many water fights within San Antonio. Anybody who knows San Antonio knows that water has always been a big, big issue that we have fought over. We have had true legislative knock-down-drag-out fights over it and now a lot of that is done.”
Texas Water Foundation CEO Sarah Schlessinger said that because state lawmakers have a surplus of funds to delegate this session, it was especially important to get the caucus launched.
“We have a lot of competing interests fighting for some of that surplus funding and so [the caucus] is really a consolidated effort there,” she said. “There’s also a need to invest in the next generation of water champions at the legislature.”
Schlessinger pointed to Larson’s exit as a prime example; the House lost “an institutional legacy” with his departure, she said.
Larson, who served on the San Antonio City Council and Bexar County Commissioners Court before joining the legislature in 2010, most recently served as the chair of the House’s Natural Resources Committee.
During his time in office, Larson was critical to passing many critical water bills, which, among other accomplishments, created a more robust process for planning and implementing flood projects, advance desalination, aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) and brackish groundwater development.
He told the San Antonio Report Wednesday he is glad to see a House Water Caucus finally come together. He traced its inception to 1997’s Senate Bill 1, which established the creation of regional Texas water resource planning and statewide drought emergency measures.
That bill, championed by former Sen. J.E. “Buster” Brown (R-Lake Jackson), who left office in 2002, and today sits on the board of the Texas Water Foundation, included an objective that will sound familiar: raising awareness around water issues, Larson said.
“We just need to have more people advocating on water issues, because you have such a diversity in what the water challenges are, depending on what part of the state you are looking at,” Larson said. “There’s just a lot of pressure points and we just need more people to become aware of those.”
It is absolutely critical that Texas representatives understand water issues — such as water security, flood mitigation, infrastructure and drought relief — as a priority, said Rep. Tracy O. King (D-Uvalde), who will serve as the caucus chairman.
King, along with state Sens. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) and Drew Springer (R-Muenster) and Rep. Cody Harris (R-Palestine), spoke at the Texas Water Development Board’s 2023 Water for Texas conference “Connecting H2Opportunities” Wednesday morning prior to the inaugural caucus meeting.
“A lot of folks in the water community have been urging us … to bring more awareness in the legislature to water issues,” King said during the panel. “This is the time to do this if we’re going to do it.”
Texas Tribune co-founder and former CEO Evan Smith moderated the panel, noting the rise in Texas boil-water notices over the last year, as well as Odessa’s water shortage.
Smith pressed the panelists about the creation of a state water fund that would help pay for critically-needed water infrastructure projects around the state.
Water infrastructure across Texas is aging and faulty, especially in rural communities that lack the funding urban areas like San Antonio use for repairs and upgrades, said Perry, who chairs the Senate’s Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs. During the last legislative session, he authored the state’s first flood plan, which included funding for mapping the entire state.
In a 2019 interview, Perry called the “lack of urgency and awareness” around the state’s water supply the biggest challenge facing the state.
Intense freezes and lingering drought conditions put additional strain on aging water infrastructure, he said.
“I’ve heard 70% of our water infrastructure is currently at or over its estimated useful life,” Perry said.
The federal infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden in 2021 will direct roughly $2.9 billion to Texas for water infrastructure projects, including the removal of lead pipes, over a five-year period.
Perry said he plans to file a bill that would allocate $3 billion from the state’s surplus to establish a water fund — $2 billion for infrastructure and $1 billion for water supply development — but he noted that any such plan would also need voter approval.
And even that would not be enough, he acknowledged, describing one survey that estimated it would take up to $392 billion to fully fund the state’s water infrastructure needs.
While there is a revolving low-interest loan fund, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT), for communities seeking financial assistance for projects in the state water plan via a low-interest loan, Larson said he’d like to see more direct state funding for water projects come out of the legislature this session.
“The loan programs work really well — I mean, close to $10 billion worth of projects have been formulated out of the SWIFT funding — but there’s a need for some gap funding.”
With many rural communities struggling to pay for upgrades to their water infrastructure, “the state needs to step in and help pay for that,” he said. In addition to a water fund, Larson said he’d like to see some of the surplus used on a large one-time injection of funding. It’s been done before, he said, pointing to 1997’s Senate Bill 1, which included $900 million for water planning.
Puente agreed, noting it shouldn’t take drought and hurricane disasters to push legislators to act on the state’s pressing water needs. Too often, he said, lawmakers don’t act until after a catastrophe. That’s the point of the caucus, he said.
“We’re trying to get ahead of it, make sure that legislators are educated about water policy, about the importance of water and wastewater,” he said.