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Even with more money, water problems likely to persist in Texas

To hear Texas’ top policymakers talk, the creation of a $2 billion water development fund to help pay for everything from desalination projects to pipelines over the next half-century will avert the state’s water crisis.

Gov. Rick Perry, for one, warned lawmakers that if they did not act, Texas could lose its competitive edge in attracting business to the state. Both Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus put the item at the top of their to-do lists.

The Legislature, in its herky-jerky way, appears ready to deliver. Lawmakers this weekend were putting the finishing touches on legislation creating the fund, including a proposed constitutional amendment asking voters to authorize it.

On paper, then, Texas’ water problem would appear to be largely solved. Yet profound problems persist on the water front, ones the money might do little to sort out.

These include fragmented water planning and regional competition within Texas; frosty relations with neighboring states and Mexico when it comes to sharing water; legal discord between surface water and groundwater interests, even as major water authorities try to meld the two in their supplies; and balancing growing industrial and municipal demands with those of farmers and wildlife.

With the effects of drought evident across the state, Texans are engaged on the issue: Overall, water issues ranked fifth among a list of 10 major issues facing the country, after government spending, health care, the economy and national security, according to a poll commissioned earlier this year by the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

But don’t expect lawmakers to return to Austin in 2015 with much appetite for water, said Ken Kramer, who lobbies on water issues for the Texas office of the Sierra Club.

“It’ll be a little bit of an uphill battle,” Kramer said. “If the Legislature acts on a big issue, lawmakers tend to think they’ve taken care of it.”

Lingering problems

Even if voters give the green light to a $2 billion fund that will loan out low-interest money for pipelines and other infrastructure, specific problems could continue to stymie the development of water resources in Texas. Many of them are internecine in nature, with regions of Texas and whole states pitted against one another. They include struggles over reservoir building between water-rich East Texas and the thirsty Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex; a lawsuit between a North Texas water district and Oklahoma; and decades-long claims by Texas officials to get impounded water upstream of the Lone Star State in Mexico and New Mexico.

Within Texas, transferring river water from one basin to another is fraught with territorial and political hurdles. The state’s own water planning process, established by lawmakers in the 1990s as a way to systematically go about forecasting needs, is broken into 16 regions, each of which contemplates only its own demands and supplies.

“It’s essentially a balkanized state planning process,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who has been deeply involved on a range of water matters. “There’s no dialogue with other regions; there’s no interbasin transfers. Those issues have to be rectified.”

In the meantime, Larson said, Texas officials could be brokering deals with Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Mexico. Larson said that beyond simply paying for water, the state can try more creative measures, such as supplying electricity for its neighbors in exchange for water.

Legal complications

Nor is the water money likely to solve thorny legal problems that bedevil water development.

As water authorities such as the Lower Colorado River Authority, which controls the chief reservoirs of Central Texas, branch out from rivers and lakes to supply water in their basins to meet growing demand, they are turning to underground aquifers.

The major problem: In Texas, river and lake water belongs to the state, and underground water belongs to the property owner whose land sits above the aquifer.

That means two different sets of laws and regulatory schemes, creating a nightmare for the river authorities. In the latest example, the LCRA finds itself in a quagmire as it seeks permission from a rural groundwater district to pump water for a Bastrop County power plant.

At the same time, these river authorities and other water suppliers are facing court orders to ensure a steady supply of water for endangered and threatened species in their basins. The state environmental agency and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which serves Buda, Kyle, San Marcos, Lockhart and Luling, were recently scolded by a federal judge for apportioning too much water for human use and not keeping enough in the Guadalupe River for endangered wildlife.

That case is under appeal.

The water money could eventually be used for pipeline projects that help alleviate that and other problems. Water from the Edwards Aquifer, for example, could be pumped, treated and stored and then piped to the Guadalupe in times of drought.

Conservation effort questioned

Some environmentalists worry that the water money amounts to a state effort to build its way out of this and other problems — rather than encouraging the public to cut back on water use, a cheaper and more efficient way to stretch supplies.

Legislative proposals call for at least 20 percent of the fund to go to conservation projects, but Kramer said that isn’t enough.

“Simply putting money into new infrastructure is working at cross-purposes with things that need more attention, like conservation,” he said. “If people perceive there’s a shortage of water, there’s more of an incentive to cut back on nonessential uses.”

But Laura Huffman, director of the Texas office of the Nature Conservancy, was more bullish about the Legislature’s action.

The conservation earmarks “will enable Texas to significantly reduce the amount of water we use in cities, energy and industry, and agriculture,” she said in a statement.

“Continuing with the status quo would threaten not only our natural resources, but our ability to grow and prosper,” she said.

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