Huffman: Cooperation will secure Texas' water future

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Note: The Texas Legislature wasn't all bad this session. Believe it or not, they took some positive steps in certain areas of policy. One of those areas is the state's water supply, which causes major concern with the state's booming population and recent droughts. Laura Huffman, State Director of the Texas Nature Conservancy, joins us for today's Sunday Opinion at BOR to explain what the legislature did and that we need to work together to make water infrastructure work.

Now that the Texas Legislature has gaveled out of regular session, congratulations are in order. Representatives on both sides of the aisle tackled one of the biggest challenges facing Texans today: water. The past several years have shown us that drought can devastate our economy, our quality of life and our natural resources. Unlike the approach lawmakers took after the 1950s drought, which focused almost exclusively on building new infrastructure to meet water needs, this Legislature took a modern approach and recognized the importance of water conservation to our state's future, including protecting our beautiful rivers, lakes and aquifers.

The Nature Conservancy saw a fundamental shift in the Legislature's emphasis on the critical role that water conservation can play in solving our water challenges and enabling our state to prosper. Managing water resources is like managing a bank account: You should not withdraw more than you deposit, and you should always leave some in reserve.

Our water deposits are largely a fixed asset – we have the same amount of water today as we did thousands of years ago. So the plain truth is that we must all use less – live within our budget – to guarantee we have water to support our rapidly growing population, grow our economy and protect our natural resources.

The package of bills has three important elements. First is a $2 billion initial investment in the state water plan. Second is dedicated funding for conservation as a critically important and inexpensive way to stretch water supplies as far as possible. Third are guidelines to hold our decision-makers accountable and help guarantee this historic investment is well spent. These are important components; our lawmakers didn't just write a blank check.

Funding the water plan is crucial because the plan charts a course for water management in Texas over the next 50 years. It's our roadmap. The plan's greatest strength is that it recognizes that conservation must be a leading strategy as we respond to our state's water crisis.

But here's the rub: none of the plan's water projects – which were recommended by 16 regional planning groups – are prioritized. That raises legitimate concerns about the need to make sure the state invests in the best projects first. The Legislature responded to both of these very real issues by investing in conservation and requiring projects to be prioritized. Here's how that happened.

The bills just passed will direct 20 percent of the funding to conservation and reuse projects, and an additional 10 percent for rural projects and agricultural conservation. Reducing our water use in cities, agriculture, energy and industry through water conservation is key to balancing our water budget. Better still, we can measure our progress with conservation to determine if new water supplies are truly needed. As a result, front-loading conservation will help keep our utility bills as low and as affordable as possible.

The legislation also requires prioritizing projects on both regional and statewide levels, based on criteria like cost-effectiveness, need, feasibility, sustainability and commitment to conservation. These features, if implemented well, are how we'll ensure the best projects happen first. We will all have to stay engaged as our communities consider strategies and projects for addressing water needs.

A special thanks to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, Sens. Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay and Tommy Williams of the Woodlands as well as Reps. Alan Ritter of Nederland and Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, who led the charge on this monumental legislation. They crafted a modern approach to a complicated problem. Gov. Rick Perry just signed one of the bills; another awaits the governor's signature.

Then it's our turn to make sure that approach sticks. The first step is for Texans to approve all of this by voting for the constitutional amendment in November. All of us – individuals, cities, agriculture, industry and energy producers – must recognize that water is the lifeblood of our state, and it's our responsibility to be good stewards. Future generations will live with our decisions.

 This op-ed was published with permission though previously published in the Austin American-Statemsan.


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