Photo: Sometimes island near Lake Travis, by Al Braden.
By Alex Ortiz
During the 2023 legislative session the legislature passed SB 28 and SJR 75, creating the Texas Water Fund, the New Water Supply for Texas Fund, and appropriating $1 billion in total. The creation of the Texas Water Fund as a constitutional fund and its appropriation of that billion dollars is on the ballot this fall as Texas Proposition 6.
At the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, we decided against taking an organizational position on Prop. 6, as it’s unclear to us whether the good outweighs the bad. This serves to help you make an informed decision when voting for or against Prop. 6.
A $1 billion investment is very needed for Texas’s crumbling water infrastructure; though it serves as a proverbial drop in the bucket towards what is needed to solve all of the state’s water issues. Of that $1 billion, Proposition 6 would mandate that $250 million be spent through the New Water Supply Fund, and the remaining $750 million would be at the discretion of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB).
Some of these dollars may go to communities that have dire water and wastewater needs, and will include additional statewide educational resources as well as addressing water loss across the state. However, communities will not be initially prioritized based on need but rather population of the county or municipality. This was made clear by removing “economically distressed areas” in the conference committee just before the bill was finally enrolled. So Texas’s most vulnerable communities, predominantly communities of color, will not necessarily be high priority for their crumbling infrastructure needs. The New Water Supply for Texas Fund also creates a glaring problem in funding unproven and potentially harmful projects with the aim of securing 7 million acre feet of water over the next decade.
75% of this billion dollar investment could be used for educational campaigns and to address municipal water loss and crumbling infrastructure across the state, primarily at the Texas Water Development Board’s discretion. TWDB was under Sunset Review this session and we fully agree with the assessment that TWDB is an efficient, well-run, competent agency that takes its mission seriously.
Our colleagues at National Wildlife Federation (through the Texas Living Waters Project) released a report last year that analyzed water loss across the state. The report found that Texas loses “at least 572,000 acre-feet per year —about 51 gallons of water per service connection every day. That’s enough water to meet the total annual municipal needs of the cities of Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo, and Lubbock combined.” Addressing water loss will decrease our overall water supply need by taking advantage of the water that is already in our pipes and gets lost along the way.
Moreover, SB 28 makes the Statewide Water Public Awareness Account eligible for distribution. This will encourage TWDB to use more statewide dollars on important educational campaigns and outreach efforts to promote water conservation as a strategy to address our critical water needs in Texas.
$250 million will be dedicated to the New Water Supply for Texas Fund. This fund prioritizes projects such as produced water (fracking wastewater) treatment and marine desalination. These projects are not intrinsically bad ideas, but in our current regulatory framework — the agencies responsible for permitting these projects are ill-equipped to do so. The Railroad Commission (RRC) will be responsible for permitting some produced water projects, while the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will be responsible for some produced water treatment projects, and also permitting desalination projects.
Currently, both the RRC and TCEQ have yet to develop any additional standards on produced water treatment and discharge, despite having the ability to do so. In fact, there hasn’t even been any substantial risk assessment done to establish just how dangerous untreated produced water could be. We do know that the constituents in produced water include radioactive materials, heavy metals, and various chemicals that producers do not disclose because of trade secrets, in addition to the waste being significantly more saline than seawater.
As for marine desalination — TCEQ has begun permitting these facilities along the Texas coast despite having no updated salinity standards to protect bay and estuarine systems. These places are important habitats for incredibly diverse plant and animal life while also providing environmental services to our coastal communities such as flood mitigation, preventing saltwater intrusion, and providing water filtration. There’s already substantial evidence of coastal systems undergoing major changes in salinity gradients over the last two decades (pointing to saline-sensitive species loss) and TCEQ has an affirmative obligation under the federal Clean Water Act to protect our coastline.
TWDB will likely need to take up several rulemaking processes to define terms and processes in enacting the legislation. In fact, in our reading of the New Water Supply Fund — there’s no obligation to spend any of the funding on produced water or marine desalination specifically — but rather that they are mere examples of new water supply strategies. It will be up to TWDB to define important terms like “new water supplies” and “new water sources.”
One such definition could include projects that are not currently in the state water plan. Projects in the state water plan benefit from being eligible for Texas’s largest water infrastructure fund, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) and should likely not count as a “new source.” That said, marine desalination exists in several regions of the state water plan now, so there is some ambiguity here. TWDB could even include water loss mitigation or water conservation projects as new water supplies or sources, and thus make them eligible for such funding as well.
TWDB will also need to prioritize communities and their eligibility for funds under discretionary use of the Texas Water Fund. While SB 28 makes clear that “rural political subdivisions” and “municipalities with a population of less than 150,000” must be prioritized, there’s nothing stopping the Board from incorporating its own equity analyses through that process.
Even though the Sierra Club has not taken a position on Prop 6, we feel it’s important to share information about what it is, and why we decided not to endorse either a YES or NO vote. Our objective is to educate Texas voters so they can make an informed decision heading into the ballot box, and to be clear, we fully support every voter casting a ballot this November. This constitutional amendment will pass if there are more YES votes than NO votes. It will not pass if there are more NO votes than YES votes, so abstaining from voting on the proposition is not the same as a NO vote. Whatever choice you decide to make, we urge you to stay informed and help raise awareness of critical water policies that affect so many Texans across the state.