The Orange Leader
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas water planners facing mounting scrutiny from lawmakers privately drafted an $8 billion list of priority projects for Republican leaders as the state considers ramping up spending to fight a dwindling water supply, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
The list from the Texas Water Development Board had not previously been made public. Questions over whether one even existed have triggered contentious discussions in the Legislature and left some frustrated GOP leaders looking to clean house at an agency they complain is slow and ineffectual at a critical time for the state's natural resources.
The list titled "Potential Priority State Water Plan Projects" is not an official document, but does give insight into where state leaders might prioritize spending. It includes at least five large reservoir projects and a variety of plans to move water from existing resources to towns and cities that need it.
Republican state Sen. Troy Fraser, who has become the most vocal critic of the water board, said Wednesday that agency leaders gave him the list a week after he told them he was filing legislation that would make substantial changes to how they operate.
Fraser said he had asked the agency for three years to produce a list. The one they finally gave him in February didn't satisfy him, he said, because the list of about 20 projects isn't ranked and only addresses large urban areas.
"What we keep asking for is a ranking," Fraser told the AP. "It's as simple as if tomorrow we only had the money to build one project, which project should we pursue? Which would be the No. 1 project? We still don't know."
The AP obtained the list through an open records request for agency emails. Most of the projects on the list are designed to get water to the state's largest population centers.
A historic drought caused an unprecedented $7.6 billion in agricultural losses in 2011 and made water a priority for the Legislature. The drought resulted in severe water restrictions statewide, significantly depleted crucial reservoirs and dried out rivers. While conditions have eased, the state still hasn't fully recovered.
Water board chairman Billy Bradford told the AP the list was created at the request of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Fraser and based on criteria they set forth. Still, he said, the agency delivered the list with unease.
"It was in direct response to a very specific request from them," Bradford said. "And quite frankly, one that we weren't terribly comfortable with. Because really, we never felt like we were in a position to be setting priorities for these regions."
Several bills have been drawn up, including one by Fraser, that propose taking $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to create a revolving loan program so communities can begin working on projects outlined in the state water plan.
Fraser's bill also suggests replacing the part-time, six-person water board with a full-time three member team. He complained publicly in a February meeting about asking the water board for a list of priorities and not receiving a response.
Emails obtained by the AP indicate that one version of the list was given to Dewhurst a month earlier, along with an explanation of how it was compiled and suggestions for changing the water code to give the board the authority to prioritize projects in the future.
The $8 billion price tag for the projects identified as priorities far exceeds the $2 billion the Legislature is considering handing over.
That $2 billion is also far below the $27 billion the agency has estimated the state would need to contribute to fully implement the state water plan, which outlines more than 560 projects with an estimated total cost of $53 billion. Cities, municipalities and water utilities have indicated they would be able to put up about half of that amount.
The water board also has a $6 billion bond authority and about $500 million left from money it received from the state more than 10 years ago. With $2 billion from the Legislature, that would allow it to come up with $8 billion for its top projects.
"We're going to give them enough money that is going to have to last them 50 years," Fraser said. "What we're asking them to do going forward is very different than what we are doing now. That's why we're looking at a different government structure."
Bradford defended the agency's performance.
"The thing that bothers me the most and I keep hearing is mismanagement," Bradford said. "And it's just not the case."
Laura Huffman, director of the Texas Nature Conservancy, believes ranking the projects is an important part of the process. But she also said the highest-ranked projects should be for communities that have a true need for more water and not just the largest population centers.
"Funding criteria should strongly consider utilities that have low per capita water use and low water losses as an indicator that existing supplies have been stretched as far as possible," Huffman said.