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Legislation that could transform Texas’ crumbling water infrastructure and create new sources of water for the state’s growing population took a crucial first step forward Monday.
A nine-member state Senate committee led by Lubbock Republican Charles Perry unanimously voted to advance updated versions of Senate Bill 28 and Senate Joint Resolution 75.
Coupled together, the legislation creates a new Water Supply for Texas Fund to be administered by the Texas Water Development Board to pay for new water projects and upgraded infrastructure — with a focus on rural communities. It’s unclear how much money the Legislature would start the fund with. However, the bills’ sponsor and advocates suggested billions would be devoted to the state’s water needs.
The new versions of the legislation address a variety of issues Texas water advocates have raised since Perry filed the bill earlier this year. At Monday’s public hearing, nearly a dozen attendees testified in favor of the bill, which would allow Texas to acquire water from other states, among other options. Two environmental advocates applauded the bill while raising concerns.
Those advocates — from Texas’ chapter of the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation — were primarily worried about “produced-water” projects, a term that typically refers to naturally occurring water that comes out of the ground during oil and gas production. There is not yet enough reliable data on the safety of produced water — the Texas Produced Water Consortium is continuing to study how to make use of produced water.
Water advocacy groups have projected that the fund needs to be at least $3 billion. And with a large budget surplus, they’re hopeful that money will be appropriated.
“[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 Tribune. “It is a way to not miss the once in a generation opportunity to fund water infrastructure needs.”
Perry did not specify how much money he is asking for from the budget committee but said “it’ll probably start with a B.”
“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 new Texas Water Fund would target the state’s water supply needs. Based on current population estimates, the state will have a shortage of 7 million acre feet of water per year by 2070, Perry said. That’s enough water to cover 7 million acres of land, one foot deep.
The bill would also invest in existing programs to repair the state’s aging water infrastructure, especially in rural communities. The state loses about 136 billion gallons of water a day, according to Perry.
At least 2,457 boil-water notices were issued across the state in 2022. Water agencies such as municipalities issue boil-water notices when the quality of the drinking water is in doubt. These notices can be issued for a variety of reasons, but they’re often related to faulty infrastructure.
During the first two months of 2023, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality received information about 508 boil-water notices.
Rural communities face a combination of a small tax base and a dearth of skilled workers, making it difficult to address aging infrastructure. The amended legislation includes new language that ensures that rural communities are prioritized. The Texas Water Development Board will be able to use money to contract out technical assistance to help rural communities fix their water systems.
“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 said.
A companion bill to Perry’s has been filed in the House. Filed by state Rep. Tracy King, House Bill 10 would allocate an unspecified amount to create the Texas Water Fund. That bill has not yet been heard in a public hearing.
Both of the legislative packages require voter approval. If the bills pass both chambers and are signed into law, Texas voters will ultimately decide during the fall election whether these funds are created. A recent Texas 2036 poll of 1,000 Texas voters showed that 89% of them considered fixing the state’s water infrastructure worth a multibillion-dollar investment.
Disclosure: Texas 2036 and Texas Water Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune