By LIBBY CLUETT
AUSTIN – The 83rd Texas legislative session begins today and lawmakers will take on many recurring priorities in the next 140 days, including one of their top – water.
With a multi-year drought plaguing much of the state, the topic has spawned debate about how to fund the state’s $53 billion water plan.
In a December speech to the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told his audience, “As our population doubles over the next 25 to 30 years … we're going to need to double our potable water supplies in the state of Texas.”
He told the audience that he plans to work with lawmakers this session to bring out about $1 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to set up a water infrastructure bank to help finance water projects.
Dewhurst said it took four years to pass Senate Bill 3, which set aside the reservoir footprints for 19 reservoirs in the state. He added that dedicating $1 billion to the water plan could help with reservoir project expenses, like surveys and rights-of-way, which will later be repaid by construction financing.
“Our state will struggle in terms of economic health if the state doesn't have enough water. The state water plan estimates losses in the hundreds of billions a year statewide – lost industry, lost jobs, lack of growth,” said Matt Phillips, the Brazos River Authority's government and customer relations manager.
Industries such as agriculture, mining, petrochemical/industrial, electric generation, as well as municipalities, are among a large number of BRA water users. Phillips explained that even in a small community, bringing in a larger retail business, like a Home Depot, requires water.
“I think the best way to look at it is that we live in a state that has been in a serious drought for the past couple of years. The drought has put in sharp focus the finite nature of our water supply,” he said. “While we have current water supplies, we don't have enough.”
The state's supplies – reservoirs – are “old and getting at the extent of their useful lives,” according to Phillips.
“With anything dealing with water, you need to start now,” he said, noting the lengthy process to plan and develop a reservoir or even a water-use permit.
The BRA has been planning Allen's Creek Reservoir – about 50 miles west of Houston – for decades. Phillips said the reservoir's timeframe for construction is 2020, yet the BRA has had its permit and has owned the land since the 1960s.
“It's a very long process to do a major water project,” he said.
In addition to Allen's Creek, the BRA also has had in the works a system-operations permit, which Phillips said would appropriate water that's already in the Brazos River. He said this permit, which requires no infrastructure, has taken around a decade.
At issue in the 83rd Legislature is funding to implement the state water plan.
“The state does need to kick in funding,” Phillips said.
While the state has been planning for the future of water resources for decades, he said, “It actually became more organized and concrete with Senate Bill 1, in 1997.”
If legislators approved $1 billion to $2 billion in funding this session, he said this could “kick start” the water plan.
“That's at least a very good start,” he said. “This would be the first dedication of actual funding of significant dollars toward the state water plan.”
Phillips said Gov. Rick Perry and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus have also voiced their commitments to water because of water's vital role in the state's economy.
“What you don't want is industries locating in other states because Texas doesn't have water,” Phillips said, citing Straus.
In the end, Philips said no matter where in Texas one lives, “every citizen can and should care to have a good state with a thriving economy. There will be more opportunities for jobs and growth.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.