Thursday, November 7, 2013

New Texas water fund offers some risks -- but also huge opportunities

Imagine that it's January 2015 and Governor Wendy Davis announces her first major budget initiative with a speech in drought-ravaged central Texas:
"My Fellow Texans, we stand at a start of a new journey. For too long, we have failed to invest in this state's people. We have failed to invest in this state's future. We have failed to invest in jobs. We have failed to invest in common-sense conservation initiatives that wisely use our resources and protect both our economic growth and our natural environment.

Today, that all changes.
Today my administration proposes that we invest $2 billion in this state's infrastructure.Today, we propose investing $2 billion in generating jobs.  Today, we propose investing $2 billion to help our communities who and in wisely using a precious natural resource.
It's fitting -- we're taking money from our rainy day fund and helping our drought-affected and cash-strapped communities gain access to much-needed water. And $200 million of the fund is reserved for the smallest parched rural communities who need water the most yet can't afford it.

But we're not going to be merely giving water away to Fracking companies profligate users. Getting access to water is important, but using it wisely is too. That's why least $400 million of the fund is strictly reserved to finance conservation projects -- better water pipes and control systems in our cities to stop waste, more efficient drip irrigation to make our successful agricultural sector even more competitive and storage projects that reduce erosion and runoff while simultaneously recharging our groundwater supplies.
 I know I would be pretty happy with that speech.

Well, the contents of that "speech" are essentially what Proposition 6 did.  It takes $2 billion from the rainy day fund and uses it to create a revolving loan fund -- essentially an infrastructure bank -- for water projects called the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT).  The general principal is somewhat similar federal funds out there already. At least $400 million of SWIFT goes to conservation programs and an additional $200 million is reserved specifically for rural and agricultural conservation projects.

Follow me below the fold for details

The centralized program will allow cash-strapped counties, cities and regions the ability to get financing at low interest rates. SWIFT provides a base of funding to implement Texas' 2012 water plan, which provides a unifying policy that oversees the plans of regional districts. Any projects in a regional district's plans are eligible for funding -- though they won't all get funding. 

Progressives and conservatives split on the issue in odd ways. Some environmental groups concerned about water wasting projects allying with Tea-Party groups concerned about debt. Other environmentalists who thought the plan improved the status quo -- by increasing conservation targets of the 2012 water plan, for example, allied with businesses who needed water for agricultural and industrial needs.

I share some concerns that too much of the money might go to moving water around instead of conserving it, but I tend to think this is a net positive. First, the conservation targets in the fund make me happy. Second, the fact that a state like Texas is actually putting a sizable investment in public infrastructure that is not a superhighway is a relief.  Finally, setting up this loan fund now is a great way to ensure long-term investment, both in building comprehensive projects today, and providing a source of financing for future projects years and decades down the line. (And don't tell conservatives this, but investing in infrastructure is actually a form of economic stimulus with long-term benefits.)

And here's the thing: we do have some power over how SWIFT gets used. The 2012 water plan only covers four years. The 2016 water plan is being drafted right now. We have to advocate to our local leaders to propose progressive water projects for inclusion in the 2016 plan. Maybe we can get the state to recognize the value of rainwater harvesting.  Maybe major cities can be able to fix leaky pipes and save billions of gallons a year. Maybe we can encourage rainwater collection and install bioswales to limit damaging runoff and recharge ground water.

So part of our goal to make sure SWIFT works best is to both directly agitate for useful conservation projects and elect and appoint public officials who also make conservation a priority. Even if we can't retake the state government for a while, electing good city mayors and taking over some County Courts -- Harris and Bexar come to mind -- will go a long way.

Prop 6 isn't perfect, but it's a good start and if we keep working, we can maximize its potential benefits.

To contact your regional water board, click here.

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