Texas lawmakers prepare to set aside billions to upgrade state’s aging water system

(UI) — A critical first step was made on March 20 toward advancing legislation that may rebuild Texas' deteriorating water infrastructure and develop new water sources for the state's expanding population.

Updated versions of Senate Bill 28 and Senate Joint Resolution 75 were unanimously approved by a nine-member state Senate committee chaired by Lubbock Republican Charles Perry.

Together, the bills establish a new Water Supply for Texas Fund, which will be run by the Texas Water Development Board, to pay for infrastructure improvements and new water projects, with a focus on rural communities, the Texas Tribune reported.

The amount of money with which the Legislature would establish the fund is unknown. But the bill's sponsor and supporters claimed that billions would go toward the state's water requirements.

When Perry introduced the plan earlier this year, a number of concerns from Texas water advocates have been addressed in the updated versions of the law. Over a dozen witnesses spoke in favor of the legislation during the public hearing on Monday, which would among other things allow Texas to purchase water from other states. Two environmental activists praised the bill while voicing their reservations.

The activists, from the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club's Texas chapter, were most concerned about "produced-water" projects, which refer to naturally existing water that is extracted from the ground during the extraction of oil and gas. The Texas Produced Water Consortium is still researching how to use produced water because there are not yet enough trustworthy statistics on its safety.

According to water advocacy organizations, the fund should contain a minimum of $3 billion. Also, they are hopeful that money will be allocated due to a sizable budget surplus.

“[Senate Bill 28] is our best chance at getting something significant passed for water this session,” Sarah Schlessinger, CEO of Texas Water Foundation, said in a statement to the Texas Tribune. “It is a way to not miss the once in a generation opportunity to fund water infrastructure needs.”

Perry said, "it'll probably start with a B," without elaborating on the amount of money he is requesting from the budget committee.

“I don’t know how many B’s there will be,” Perry told The Texas Tribune after the hearing. “It’s a big number. I think everybody is behind it.”

The newly created Texas Water Fund would focus on the state's water supply requirements. Per current population projections, the state will have an annual water shortfall of 7-million-acre feet by 2070, according to Perry. That much water would be deep enough to cover 7 million acres of land.

The law would also allocate funds to currently running initiatives to upgrade the state's dilapidated water system, particularly in rural areas. Perry estimates that the state loses 136 billion gallons of water every day.

In the state of California in 2022, there were at least 2,457 boil-water notices issued. When there is a question about the quality of the drinking water, water organizations such as municipalities issue boil-water notices. These warnings may be given for a number of reasons, but defective infrastructure is frequently one of them.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality received information about 508 boil-water notices during the first two months of 2023.

Small tax bases and a shortage of experienced labor in rural areas make it challenging to rehabilitate deteriorating infrastructure. The additional language included to the Act ensures that rural communities are given priority. The Texas Water Development Board will have the resources to hire expert support to assist rural towns in repairing their water infrastructure.

“Some people have asked why the smaller systems are our focus — that’s 85% of our geography. That’s where the bulk of the pipes are,” Perry told the Tribune.

Perry has introduced a counterpart bill in the House. House Bill 10, introduced by state representative Tracy King, would give the Texas Water Fund an undetermined sum of money. A public hearing has not yet been held to discuss that bill.

Voters must approve both legislative packages. Texas voters will eventually decide if these funds are created during the fall election if the proposals pass both chambers and are signed into law. According to a recent Texas 2036 poll of 1,000 Texans, 89% of them thought spending billions of dollars to improve the state's water infrastructure was worthwhile.

This story was originally reported by the Texas Tribune.

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