You can’t drink money

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Texas lawmakers from all political parties are paying an unprecedented level of attention to Texas’ declining water resources. In addition to a host of smaller bills, both houses of the Legislature have filed major legislation that would allocate money for water management projects from the “Rainy Day Fund,” the state’s $12 billion reserve for unanticipated emergencies. Texas’ dire hydrological future not only qualifies as such an emergency, it’s arguably the biggest crisis this state has ever faced. The Legislature’s initiatives, however, are based on unrealistically optimistic projections, and various interest groups are bickering over what funding has been proposed. At a moment when this state must grit its teeth, buckle down and sacrifice short-term economic prosperity for long-term environmental survival, the major players are squabbling over who gets what portion of a hopelessly inadequate sum.

Almost all of the proposals in the Legislature attempt to meet the recommendations of the Texas Water Development Board, which releases a State Water Plan every five years outlining what Texas needs to do to prepare for a much drier future. Citing enormous population growth and declining water resources, the 2012 State Water Plan estimates that the state’s total unmet water needs in 2060 will amount to about 800 billion gallons per year. It also says that a $53 billion investment in local conservation and management projects is necessary to avoid that fate.

The TWDB has released similarly desperate reports for decades, and for the first time lawmakers are addressing their concerns. Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, have both filed widely-supported legislation that would take $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for the TWDB’s recommendations. “Our projections show that $2 billion would fully implement the State Water Plan as it exists today,” Ritter said in a statement. “With that one-time capital investment, we could provide adequate, meaningful funding to the plan and achieve the state’s goals of supporting local entities in the implementation of projects.”

Since those bills were filed in January, conflict has erupted between competing interest groups as lawmakers focus their attention on prioritizing the TWDB’s many proposals. Urban areas stand to receive by far the largest share of the money, partly for practical reasons — the vast majority of the state’s projected population growth will happen in the cities — and partly for political ones, as all that urban growth means an accordingly large increase in the power of urban voters.

Meanwhile, agricultural interests in the Rio Grande Valley, I-35 corridor and Panhandle demand their share. The Senate initiative mandates that 10 percent of the funding be devoted to rural projects, but to the agriculture lobby’s chagrin, the House bill makes no such promise. Currently 56 percent of Texas’ water supply is used for agricultural purposes, although that percentage is expected to decline as a result of skyrocketing urban growth.

Industry has a vested interest in the Legislature’s funding choices as well. Drilling companies, for example, require large quantities of water for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Their demand for water has grown considerably in recent years, according to a study at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences. It’s no secret that Texas lawmakers have long felt pressure from the state’s outsized oil and gas industry, but they’re toughening up on this issue. In a House Natural Resources Committee meeting in February, an industry representative requested tax breaks for drilling companies to encourage water recycling. Allan Ritter, the committee chairman, scoffed at the proposal: “It kinda sounds familiar, the first thing you do is come up and ask for tax incentives. Boy, I’ve heard that a few times. Good luck with that, sir.”

As the interest groups quarrel, the Legislature should be aware of evidence that even the TWDB’s basic premise — that we must prepare for a repeat of the 1950 “drought of record” as the worst-case scenario — may understate the severity of the situation. Although 1950 marked the worst drought in recorded Texas history, that history is only a few hundred years old. A study of tree ring data going back thousands of years by UT’s Environmental Science Institute reports that droughts like that of 1950 are regularly dwarfed by massive “megadroughts,” which last for decades. If such a megadrought occurs in this century — which is likely, the study says — it will be far more debilitating than even the most pessimistic estimates being discussed at the Capitol. Indeed, the ESI study predicts that repeats of the 1950 drought will occur at least once a decade starting in 2040. To prepare for such an outcome, we need to stop worrying about how much money stands to be lost by one group or another and start worrying about our state’s basic survival.