88th LegislatureStatewide NewsTaxes & SpendingProposed Fund Would Facilitate Water Supply Projects for Rural Areas and Small Cities

Water development is an issue incredibly fraught with political land mines, but one the state must confront as its population booms.
February 14, 2023
Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) will advance legislation this year to create a “Water for Texas Fund” that would subsidize water supply projects for lesser populated areas of the state.

The fund would be administered by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), the agency tasked with overseeing water projects throughout the state. Senate Bill (SB) 837 and its enabling constitutional amendment state it would be funded by money allocated to it by the Texas Legislature, dividends earned on investments by the fund, and other transfers allowed by law.

While the final amount is not settled — far from it — Perry told The Texan he hopes for $3 billion across two purposes: $1 billion for new water projects, and $2 billion to fix leaking wastewater pipe systems.

It is estimated that over the next 50 years, our state could be short 7 million acre-feet (over 2.2 trillion gallons) of water, and according to the TWDB, over 136 billion gallons of water are lost each year to leaks in our infrastructure,” said Perry. “It is time for the state to put real investment in our water infrastructure and ensure Texas has sufficient water supply as we continue to grow.”

With the state’s projected $32.7 billion treasury surplus — plus another estimated $27 billion in the state’s savings account — infrastructure investment has remained a large priority for state leaders during the current legislative session. Yet even despite the record level of state revenues, it is likely to evaporate rather quickly with so many looking for a slice of the pie.

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The state has a similar existing fund called the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT), but this proposal focuses on small and mid-sized areas.

Building new water supplies is not only costly. It’s difficult. The Marvin Nichols Reservoir, a northeast Texas project to supply water mainly to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has been in the works since the 1980s and still hasn’t broken ground. While it’s one of the most politically fraught projects, it highlights the unavoidable clash between the areas where the land is and the areas where the people are.

Last year, the TWDB moved Marvin Nichols’ operation date to up 2050 to cope with projected population growth.

A spokesman with the TWDB told The Texan that “Less populated or more rural areas tend to have smaller systems and fewer staff who often wear multiple hats in their roles.”

“They may not have the staff resources that larger systems have, nor the funds readily available to invest in water projects. Access to financial assistance through the State is essential to less-populated areas being able to complete water infrastructure projects.”

There are nearly 2,500 projects within the 2022 State Water Plan, with operational dates varying between 2020 and 2070. Of those according to TWDB, 1,327 projects fall within areas with a population of 10,000 or less — the line at which “rural” is defined in code. Slightly more than 1,900 projects are within mid-sized municipalities with a population of 150,000 or less.

Another strategy is the use of saltwater desalination plants — operations on the Gulf of Mexico that turn saltwater into drinkable water. There are currently four proposed desalination plants in the works around the Corpus Christi area, including by the Port of Corpus Christi. It’s also a strategy specifically mentioned in Perry’s bill.

Perry and others pushing this water envelope aim to force the issue so that well before the state’s current supply is stretched thin by a booming population, necessary supply projects may already be in the works or completed. The fund, according to Perry, establishes a supportive pretense for the following discussions on which projects to add for which areas.

Texas is adding population each year at about the size of Corpus Christi — around 320,000 — and its water supply is struggling to keep up. Current estimates from the Texas State Water Plan show a potential shortage of nearly 7 million acre-feet of water per year by 2070, with municipal water demand estimated to grow 63 percent.

The other side of the issue for Perry is the aging municipal water infrastructure. Last year, a water main break in Odessa led to a days-long outage and boil notice. Earlier this year, the City of Corpus Christi allocated $80 million to refurbish the city’s pipes.

Smaller areas have less infrastructure to cope with problems as well as less capital at their disposal.

In exchange for this potential funding, SB 837 would require the TWDB to conduct water audits of municipalities to decide where the funding should be allocated.

Many municipalities often use their utility revenues to supplement their general fund, which may be spent on more outlets than just specific infrastructure improvements. Utility fees are revenues that don’t come from property tax collections, which are the main source of revenue for localities.

This fund would provide another potential source for projects, specifically for the rural areas and lesser-populated towns — so that Odessa and Lufkin aren’t drowned out by Austin and Dallas.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include comment from TWDB.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.