Long-term drought conditions could start costing Texas jobs—and money—if state voters do not pass a $2 billion water referendum this November, according to four water experts.
Colorado River Alliance, a nonprofit conservation and community awareness group based in Austin, hosted a Sept. 6 panel discussion to highlight major water-related initiatives that came out of the recently concluded 83rd Legislative Session. Most notably, the Legislature agreed to take $2 billion out of the state's Economic Stabilization Fund, commonly known as the Rainy Day fund—pending voter approval of Proposition 6 in November—to finance major water infrastructure projects in the state's water plan.
State officials estimate the fund could help finance up to $27 billion in improvements to the Texas water system.
“The 83rd Legislature has given you the opportunity to make a difference,” said Heather Harward, executive director of water advocacy group H2O4TEXAS. “Proposition 6 will be doing more for water today and tomorrow than we've done for almost two decades.”
State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said the state's reputation is already at risk because of the historic drought, which threatens to be the worst on record, according to Highland Lakes water levels. Potential new employers, for example, are first inquiring about water availability before even considering moving from out of state, he said.
“We've got to change the psychology on how we address water issues,” Larson said. “If we continue the path of the past 30 years of build nothing, we will get nothing.”
Psychology will also come into play on voting day, he said, explaining how Texas voters may not feel the need to pass a $2 billion water initiative if several inches of rain fall days before the Nov. 5 election. While the dollar amount may seem significant, the money total does not begin to scratch the surface to satisfying the state's needs, said Marc Rodriguez, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and board member of social and economic outreach group Austin Area Research Organization.
More money and time will need to be dedicated, he said, and permitting issues between groundwater districts and municipalities will have to be solved to ensure long-term water security.
“The constitutional amendment will set a major tone in Texas when it passes,” Rodriguez said. “It's not whether we have the appetite in the Legislature or in industry—we have to have the appetite to address those issues simply because of financial stability.”
Every water interest—municipalities, industrial customers and agricultural users—will have to share some pain in order to ensure all three sectors thrive in Texas, said Laura Huffman, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Texas, a statewide environmental advocacy group. She also points out that 20 percent of the money, if approved for spending by voters, would go toward conservation efforts.
“Conservation is the cheapest water supply of the future,” Huffman said. She also urged conservation groups to support the proposition's passage before debating what projects should benefit from the $2 billion fund.
“Let's fight over how to spend the money after getting the money,” she said.