A major reservoir project meant to ease the strain on lakes Travis and Buchanan, the major reservoirs of Central Texas, is not among the water projects deemed most worthy for low-interest loans from the state of Texas.
The proposal by the Lower Colorado River Authority to build a $206 million reservoir in Wharton County is absent from the unofficial priority list assembled by the Texas Water Development Board in February.
The list — assembled in response to requests from state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — is essentially a rough draft of which water projects deserve state financing. The Legislature is considering financing water projects by using $2 billion from the state rainy day fund as seed money for a low-interest, revolving loan program administered by the Water Development Board.
The reservoir project’s absence from the list doesn’t torpedo the possibility of state financing, but it does underscore the competition the LCRA faces with scores of other water suppliers — four of them in Central Texas — for lawmakers’ attention.
Traditionally, the water development board decides which projects to finance based on their conservation component and the decade they will be needed — that is, a project needed by 2020 will get priority over one needed by 2030.
But in response to the lawmaker requests, Water Development Board personnel focused on areas with the highest population growth; eliminated any projects that weren’t considered feasible; and considered projects that would have the greatest volume of water available in 2020, the biggest bang for the buck in terms of the amount of water they would create, and the highest yields in 2060, among other things. It also favored projects that were further along with their permits and had local support.
On paper, at least, the LCRA project appears to fulfill some of those criteria. The LCRA says the reservoir could be completed as soon as 2017 and store as much as 90,000 acre-feet per year, easing the strain on the Highland Lakes in the fast-growing greater Austin area.
An acre-foot roughly equals the amount of water used by three average Austin households a year.
But the LCRA project was not included because the list emphasizes projects for high-growth areas, said Melanie Callahan, the Texas Water Development Board executive administrator. In the state water plan, the reservoir project is drawn as helping downstream interests, such as rice farmers and industry, in a less populated part of the basin.
LCRA officials, however, have consistently described the reservoir as having “basinwide” benefits.
Callahan said the list is “simply a working document.”
“As the Legislature looks to put $2 billion into this, they’re looking at all the options and all different criteria,” she said.
In January, LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said the river authority would look at funding sources other than a rate increase. State financing was expected to play an important role.
“State financial assistance, including low-cost loans, would help minimize costs to customers,” LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said in a statement.
Stung by questions of cronyism involving a cancer research fund and the state enterprise fund, lawmakers are already grappling with how to avoid any taint on the water project selection process.
At a meeting Monday of a Senate Finance subcommittee, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked Fraser: “What do we need to do make sure powerful politicians in Austin do not prioritize (water) projects for their friends?”
Fraser said he’s proposing an advisory committee to monitor the spending of the water infrastructure money. Its proposed makeup: three members appointed by the speaker of the House, three members appointed by the lieutenant governor and three members appointed by the governor.
Among the projects deemed most worthy for state financing are city of Austin projects to expand its reuse program, in which nonpotable water could be used to irrigate public parks, golf courses and landscaping, at an estimated total cost of $302.3 million over the next half-century; a Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority project to store water underground in Gonzales County at an estimated cost of $546 million; a partnership of San Marcos, Kyle, Buda and the Canyon Regional Water Authority to pump, transport and treat groundwater from eastern Caldwell County at a cost of $307.7 million; and a partnership called the Texas Water Alliance, to pump and transport groundwater from Gonzales County for $313 million.
Graham Moore, general manager of the Hays Caldwell Public Utility Agency, the partnership of San Marcos, Kyle, Buda and the Canyon Regional Water Authority, said state financing would help defer costs “lessening pain on today’s customers.”
His group has worked to raise its profile among lawmakers and the Water Development Board to get state backing, he said.
But Daryl Slusher, assistant director of Austin Water Utility, downplayed the necessity of state financing, given currently low interest rates.
“A big utility can get rates as low or nearly as low as the ones offered by the Texas Water Development Board,” he said.
The 2012 state water plan reported that water providers said they would need $26.9 billion in state assistance for water projects over the next 50 years. Fraser has called the 550-odd projects listed in the state water plan a Christmas wish list, and he had pressed the state agency for a priority list of projects.
The Associated Press first reported on the priority list Wednesday. Altogether, the plan highlights about two dozen projects that could cost about $8 billion to undertake. The water board also has a $6 billion bonding authority, approved by voters in a 2011 constitutional amendment, and about $500 million left from money it received from the state more than a decade ago. Thus, with an additional $2 billion from the Legislature, it could cover the projects on the unofficial list.
Nine percent, including the Austin reuse project, is earmarked for conservation-minded projects.
“As we respond to the drought and plan how to meet our water needs in the years to come, we need to pursue a balanced solution that maximizes the efficiency of water use,” said Luke Metzger, head of Environment Texas in a statement, “but the state is giving water conservation just lip service.”