Recent events demonstrated Texas’ heightened resolve to deal with its drought-aggravated water-supply issues, while other developments – including Friday’s cancellation of an embattled coal-plant proposal near Abilene – have underscored those issues’ complexity and the challenging impacts of continuing water shortages.

Capping a stop-and-start legislative effort that ultimately resulted in the passage of an array of water-related bills, Gov. Rick Perry on June 14 signed several measures to enhance and expand conservation efforts.

Earlier that same week, a coalition of corporate and other prominent members called H2O4Texas launched a campaign to persuade voters to pass a constitutional amendment this fall to enable the spending of $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund on expansion of water-supply infrastructure and water-conservation efforts. Perry had previously signed legislation with lawmakers’ authorization of those expenditures, which are contingent on voter approval of the amendment.

The actions variously stipulated and authorized in assorted bills will be phased in – some over decades – and so won’t bring immediately sweeping relief to a state where persistent dry conditions following the record-setting 2011 drought continue to impact the state’s water supply.

There were more reminders of that fact in the last few days. Perry, for instance, extended an emergency drought declaration that he first issued on July 5, 2011. And in a report [PDF] issued Thursday, the National Weather Service noted that reckoned on a statewide basis, Texas reservoir levels are at their lowest for this time of year since modern record-keeping started.

It’s not a sure thing that the constitutional amendment to spend $2 billion to address that problem will pass, however. Backers of the amendment range from conservation-advocating environmental groups to the H204Texas coalition’s well-heeled membership including major energy companies and trade organizations. But opposition is brewing, too.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Tea Party and other conservative groups are planning what one member called a “good old-fashioned grassroots effort” to defeat the amendment because it allows the $2 billion to be spent without violating a state spending cap that should be respected.

The $2 billion in infrastructure and conservation spending was the centerpiece of the Legislature’s effort to address water problems this year, but its defeat at the polls would not halt actions initiated in the other water-oriented bills that Perry signed.

Some of the measures are interrelated, drafted to operate in concert. One bill (HB 857), for instance, will require utilities with more than 3,300 water connections to conduct water-loss audits yearly. Another (HB 1461) mandates reports of the audit results to customers. And a third (HB 3605) says that utilities getting state financial assistance must mitigate water losses discovered in audits, if they exceed certain limits.

The Environment Texas organization applauded those bills’ signing by Perry, noting the scope of the problem they address:

Broken water mains leak more than 2 percent of the water provided in municipal systems. In the summer of 2011, the city of Houston lost as much as 25 percent of its water to leaks. Repairing leaking municipal water mains would end the waste of at least 20 billion gallons of water annually.

Yet another bill that the governor signed, SB 198, represented a long-sought victory for water-conservation advocates. It will prohibit the banning by homeowners associations of water-saving, drought-tolerant landscaping, though the organizations can still require prior approval and set guidelines for such plants.

Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club jointly praised the legislation, noting in a statement that many homeowners associations in Texas “require a home’s front and side yards be covered with turf grass that demands frequent watering.”

A survey of 264 Austin-area homeowners associations in Austin, released last March by Clean Water Action, had found that just 20 of the groups explicitly permitted water-saving landscapes.

Among the other water bills signed by Perry:

  • HB 2615 increases penalties when water-rights holders fail to submit annual water-use reports to the state.
  • HB 2781 enacts changes in current law aimed at improving the operation of rainwater-harvesting systems.
  • HB 3604 requires water-supply entities to implement both their water-conservation and drought-contingency plans (not one or the other, as had been allowed) when the governor declares a drought disaster in their county or counties.

A more detailed summary of these and other key water bills passed by the Legislature this year has been posted [PDF] online by the Sierra Club.

Mosaic-like, other recent developments illustrate something of the scope of the state’s continuing water woes and their effects.

  • Tenaska, a Nebraska-based energy company, announced Friday that it was dropping plans for a coal-fired power plant near Sweetwater that has been fiercely opposed, along with other proposed coal plants in the state, by some local residents and statewide environmental-advocacy groups. Abilene’s KTXS reported that the proposal “faced a number of hurdles, including scarcity of water,” and quoted a local opposition leader who said the plant would “have taken precious water from our families, farmers and local businesses [and] sucked up our tax dollars and left us with nothing but pollution.”
  • On Thursday, two of the commissioners who oversee the state’s main regulatory agency for environmental matters, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, issued what they termed a “call-to-action report,” which listed steps they want the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) to take to compel Mexico to deliver “much needed” water that they said Mexico owes to South Texas. It was just the latest twist in Texas’ multi-front battle with neighbors over contested water supplies. Various elected officials have already been calling for the bi-national IBW to take such actions. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oklahoma in a dispute over Red River water with a North Texas water district. And in another Rio Grande quarrel, Texas lawmakers recently earmarked $5 million for a water struggle with New Mexico.
  • The Star-Telegram reported that municipal water supplies in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were down by 15 to 20 percent from this time last year. The newspaper quoted a National Weather Service meteorologist about what that means for water-supply considerations as the hottest time of year approaches: “Those issues are going to be more of a concern this summer because we have less water to start with. If you have a hot summer, it increases evaporation and increases water usage.”
  • In Central Texas, the Lower Colorado River Authority reported that most downstream farmers would receive no water for the second year in a row from the dam-formed Highland Lakes that the agency manages. Despite a nearly 45-percent decrease in water use by LCRA customers in 2012, the LCRA said Lakes Travis (with the largest storage capacity of the Highland Lakes reservoirs) and Buchanan (the largest of the lakes in surface area) were only about 39 percent full. Inflows to agency-managed reservoirs, meanwhile, were just “slightly above” to those the lowest ever recorded – in 2011, Texas’ record-setting year or drought and heat wave.

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons