Texas Prop 6: Loved by Dow, The Koch Brothers, And The Sierra Club

Brazos river runs dry in Knox County, Texas during the summer drought of 2011. Courtesy of TPWD.
A dry Brazos River  in Knox County during the drought of 2011. Image courtesy of TPWD.

After more than a decade of virtually ignoring Texas’ growing water infrastructure needs, Rick Perry is guns a-blazing for Prop 6, a plan, if approved by voters on November 5, will funnel $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund into a newly created State Water Implementation Fund for Texas.

The fund would create a vehicle for cities and towns across the state to tap into low-interest loans for projects in line with the State Water Plan as devised by the Texas Water Development Board in consultation with regional water districts. 

The plan recommends $53 billion in projects over the next 50 years expected to meet a mere one quarter of the state’s water demand as the population is expected to double. Perry has repeatedly said the $2 billion in seed money could lead to the construction of $30 billion worth of water projects. And, to date, the plan has received broad support.

Funding an aggressive sales drive have been those that would build the reservoirs and corporations most desperate for continued cheap sources of water.

According to the Dallas Morning News:

Water Texas, the premiere political action committee pushing for a Nov. 5 water funding measure, raised nearly $1 million in August and September.

Top backers of Water Texas, led by House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, include major energy, chemical and building interests in the state. …

Biggest contributors

  • $375,000 –   Associated General Contractors of Texas
  • $250,000 –   Dow Chemical
  • $100,000 –   Energy Future Holdings / Luminant
  • $25,000   —  Valero Energy Corp. PAC and LyondellBasell
  • $20,000   –   Koch Industries Inc.

In one of those (almost) antiquated media backhands aimed at tarnishing the environmental movement (as if it were one entity), Bloomberg News reports that “environmentalists” are against the plan.

The measure faces opposition from Tea Party groups who are against spending the rainy-day fund, and from environmentalists who say it will do little good.

Not quite. The Sierra Club is firmly behind it. So is Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and Environment Texas.

That is not to say that there are not reasons to oppose it.

“How the money will be apportioned is still unknown,” Ronald Kaiser, professor of Water Law and Policy at Texas A&M University, told the Houston Chronicle recently. “People are putting all their faith in the water board.”

While a writer for the Texas Water Resources Institute called the TWDB’s State Water Plan the “closest thing to a clear solution to Texas’ water woes” and the “the envy of other states,” the Southwest Farm Press points out that:

The most expensive project on the list calls for $1.8 billion to construct a pipeline to South Texas for municipal water use in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The second priciest project on the list involves a $700 million-plus plan to buy irrigation water from South Texas for municipal use in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, mostly to facilitate landscape irrigation.*

The Texas Water Development Board confirmed that some households in the Fort Worth area have provided irrigation of landscaped yards through the winter months in spite of the drought. In 2011, the state’s driest year on record, much of Fort Worth’s public water, estimated 45 percent, went to landscape watering. By contrast, the City of San Antonio estimated 25 percent of public water was used for watering and landscape purposes for the same period.

There are, to put it mildly, inequities in play here, and the historic patterns of large-scale rural-to-urban water transfers are poised to continue.

While Dallas proper has tempered its per-capita water use slightly between 2008 and 2011 (the most recent year for which such data is available from the TWDB) to 193 gallons per day, per resident, San Antonio and El Paso have reduced their way to 149 and 144 gpd per capita, respectively.

Unchanged are the wealthy suburbs of these cities. Plano outside Dallas uses on average 238 gpd/resident; Alamo Heights inside San Antonio uses 255 gpd/resident. And if Houston’s average water use of 191 gpd/resident seems high, just drive over to its suburb of Piney Point Village, where residents use on average 499 gallons per day.

And yet the State Water Plan commits too little by way of conservation, according to Alyssa Burgin, director of the advocacy organization Texas Drought Project.

“In the original legislation, it’s very carefully worded. It says the Texas Water Development Board ‘shall undertake to apply these funds (for conservation),’ as opposed to ‘the Texas Water Development Board shall apply,’ said Burgin. “To some people that may sound like a very minor difference  but for someone who has been around politics as long as I have it sounds like a hole big enough to drive a very large water truck through.

“Let’s face it,” she added. “I’ve never been on the side of the Koch Brothers, and I’m not going to start now.”

Obviously pressures to act are deep and real. Whether via Prop 6 or no, we must wrest the deepest possible conservation gains from our population centers. Then there are underground reservoirs, desalination of groundwater, and the artificial division of ground and surface water rules in need of consolidation, as Glenn Longly, director of the Edwards Aquifer Research and Data Center in San Marcos at Texas State University, told to me recently.

Before we start any more billion-dollar water projects, we should be requiring cities to meet the strictest of conservation measures — in some cases the abandonment of English lawns altogether. The deeply water-constrained future we are only beginning to enter into will require as much and more.

* I could not find these projects in the Texas Water Plan and a spokesperson for the TWDB said they did not know what the author of the article was referring to. The most expensive item listed in the Texas Water Plan I found was the proposed $3.3 billion Marvin Nichols Reservoir to feed DFW, 170 miles away, a project opposed by the Sierra Club.