AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — During this year’s legislative session, Texas lawmakers allocated part of the state’s historic $32.7 billion surplus toward better protecting the state against droughts and floods — an investment that followed one of the hottest summers on record and the worst drought in a decade.
Climate change has brought higher temperatures to Texas that accelerate evaporation rates from reservoirs and dry soil more quickly, meaning less water flows into rivers and streams. At the same time, rising temperatures and warmer oceans — which increase the amount of water in the air — increase the risk of extreme rainfall in Texas.
Significant flooding and extreme rain events are more frequent following droughts, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment.
What did the Legislature change?
Texas lawmakers allocated more than $2 billion this year to increase water supplies, fix failing water infrastructure and prevent flooding.
One billion dollars of the state’s surplus money during this budget cycle will go toward water supply and water infrastructure projects if voters approve the idea this fall. Lawmakers also created new funds — the New Water Supply for Texas Fund and the Texas Water Fund — that specify how to allocate that money.
The Legislature also allocated $125 million to match federal water infrastructure money — meaning Texas agencies will be able to unlock more than $750 million from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The money will be used for a host of projects, such as replacing lead water pipes and removing water contamination from drinking water systems.
Another roughly $1 billion will go toward flood prevention. Lawmakers allocated $550 million of the surplus for coastal barrier projects and the “Ike Dike,” a huge gate system proposed for the mouth of Galveston Bay to protect the Houston area from hurricane storm surges. Another $625 million of surplus money will go toward Texas’ Flood Infrastructure Fund to finance flood prevention projects included in the state’s first flood plan.
Who is affected?
Texans across the state are affected by declining water supplies, water infrastructure disruptions and flooding in their communities.
Leaky pipes and old treatment plants stressed by dwindling supply, more demand and extreme weather events prompt frequent alerts to boil water or avoid using it altogether. Power outages can also prompt such alerts (almost 15 million people had their water supply disrupted during the 2021 winter storm). And droughts can lead utilities to direct customers to cut back on water usage. For example, hundreds of utilities asked customers to cut back on water use last summer.
Texans are also no stranger to the devastating impacts of floods. Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damage, making it one of the most expensive storms in U.S. history. The damaged homes of many survivors have still not yet been elevated, rebuilt or repaired. Harris County, which includes Houston, has seen seven federally declared disasters due to severe weather in the last decade alone.
Who influenced the outcome?
State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, has for years spearheaded water policy in the Legislature, and this year was no exception. He was largely responsible for the terms and passage of Senate Bill 28 and Senate Joint Resolution 75, which together will create the Texas Water Fund and the New Water Supply for Texas Fund.
In the House, a bipartisan group of representatives created a new Texas House Water Caucus this year. It includes 38 House members and was led by state Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, who carried water legislation in the House this year.
Several groups, including the Texas Water Conservation Association, the National Wildlife Federation and the Texas Water Foundation, advocated for investment in Texas’ water infrastructure.
How much will it cost Texans?
The $1 billion allocated toward water supply and water infrastructure, the $125 million to draw down federal water infrastructure money, and the more than $1 billion for the “Ike Dike” and other flood prevention projects will be funded by Texas’ $32.7 billion surplus.
Although a huge investment, both the money for water infrastructure and flood mitigation represent a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s needs. For example, Texas probably needs more than $38 billion just to get started on flood prevention, according to early proposals for a statewide flood plan still in development.
What alternatives were considered?
The House attempted to ensure that part of the $1 billion for water infrastructure would be prioritized for economically distressed areas, including colonias, which are small communities primarily on the Texas-Mexico border.
But that proposal was rejected by senators negotiating the final language of the bills — a huge loss for people living in colonias, which frequently lack basic services such as water and sewage. An estimated 2,300 colonias exist along the borderlands in El Paso, Hidalgo, Maverick, Starr, Webb and Cameron counties.
Texas senators wanted to limit uses of the New Water Supply for Texas Fund to financing desalination plants, projects to import water from other states, and produced water treatment facilities. House members wanted to give the Texas Water Development Board, which will manage the funds, more flexibility in how it will allocate the $1 billion. The final language leaves out importing water from other states and adds aquifer storage to the list, but it doesn’t preclude the agency from allocating the money to other types of projects.
Lawmakers had floated allocating as much as $3 billion toward the water supply and water infrastructure funds, but budget negotiators ultimately landed on $1 billion.
Texas voters will have a chance to approve or reject allocating the $1 billion and creating the Texas Water Fund in November through a constitutional amendment. If voters approve, the fund will be created Jan. 1, 2024.
The New Water Supply For Texas Fund will take effect Sept. 1 if the governor allows the law to go into effect, but it will remain unfunded unless voters approve the constitutional amendment.
Money for flood mitigation projects is tied to the state budget: Comptroller Glenn Hegar has to certify that the budget is balanced, as required by the state constitution. Then, Gov. Greg Abbott has until June 18 to strike any spending lines from the budget.
The first state flood plan, which will dictate what projects are prioritized for flood mitigation money, is due to the Legislature in September 2024.
Alejandra Martinez contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.