[ Update, Nov. 5 ]
Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment, Proposition 6, to provide $2 billion for a revolving loan account to pay for water-supply and water-conservation projects.
With 71 percent of precincts reporting, the proposal inspired by Texas’ ongoing drought led by a 3-1 margin.
House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, hailed the vote in a statement issued by his office that echoed political and business leaders’ pre-election emphasis on the economic importance of the proposition:
The Texas economy took a big step forward tonight. This vote will allow communities across Texas to secure the water resources needed to foster private-sector growth and economic opportunity. Job-creators will know that Texas has the water supply they need, and towns and cities will be better prepared for prolonged drought conditions. This vote proves that the people of Texas will support leaders who are willing to make difficult decisions. It would have been easy to ignore this crisis and allow our State Water Plan to continue collecting dust on a shelf. Instead, a bipartisan group of legislators put forth a responsible plan that the people of Texas have now endorsed.
Ken Kramer, water conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, issued a statement that stressed the conservation theme employed by environmentalists who campaigned for the measure’s passage:
Now the real work begins. Texans need to become actively involved in regional water planning and in local government water supply decisions to make sure that the potential for Prop 6 to advance water conservation and enhance water planning is achieved. The earmark for conservation funding could be a game-changer – but that will only occur if regional groups include significant conservation projects in their water plans and if local water suppliers apply for state financial assistance for such projects. … Everyone needs to remember that the conservation funding earmarks taking effect as the result of passage of Prop 6 are a floor, not a ceiling. The more that conservation is employed to address our state’s water needs, the more we will be able to stretch local and state government dollars for water supplies.
[ The following report was published on Nov. 4, before the statewide election, under the headline “Water proposal: Will voters think of recent rains or lingering drought?” ]
Which recent rain-related news will have more influence on Texas voters Tuesday when they decide the fate of a constitutional amendment to allocate $2 billion in a one-time transfer from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for water-supply and water-conservation projects?
Will they be thinking about recent headlines like last Friday’s “Austin flooding kills 2, prompts dozens of rescues,” prompted by heavy rains that have come to parts of Texas?
Or will they focus more on the fact that, despite notable recent precipitation, the drought that started with the record-setting heat wave and dry spell of 2011 drags on across much of the state?
The U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest assessment last week showed 85 percent of Texas remained in conditions ranging from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought.” A year before, such conditions prevailed in 84 percent of the state.
Meanwhile, the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M University, has continued to repeat his often-stated warning that broader climate conditions conducive to lingering drought in Texas could persist for another 15 years.
Regarding the additional, longer-term impact of manmade climate change on the state in coming decades, Nielsen-Gammon told Texas Climate News last year that temperatures like the record-setting heat of 2011, “while they’re not going to be normal for the foreseeable future, [are] going to be a lot more common.”
Gov. Rick Perry, an avowed climate-change skeptic, and other top elected officials have campaigned for passage of the water-fund amendment, stressing the dire economic ramifications if the state’s growing population were to outrun its water supplies. The proposal appears on ballots statewide as Proposition 6.
Illustrating the broad political support for the measure, state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and frequent Perry critic who has called for state actions to deal with manmade climate change, joined the governor last month in urging Texans to approve the proposition.
“There’s nothing partisan about it,” Watson said at a joint appearance with Perry at a Central Texas lake where the water level was 45 feet below its October normal.
Business interests, meanwhile, have joined forces with some of their own traditional critics among environmental advocates to support the amendment.
An analysis by the Texans for Public Justice group found that most of the $2.1 million donated to House Speaker Joe Straus’ Water Texas PAC to urge voter approval of the water fund came from energy and construction industries.
Environmental groups backing the measure include the Sierra Club and Environment Texas, which stress its enablement of major spending on water conservation – a cause they have long championed with less-than-wished-for success.
Though proponents haven’t talked about climate change very much, if they have at all, in direct relation to the amendment, the connection is sometimes made less directly. On its Facebook page, Environment Texas has posts explicitly urging a yes vote near a post that doesn’t mention the proposition but says this: “The drought is a stark reminder of the reality of climate change and the immediate need for conservation.”
Arrayed against the unlikely-seeming allies supporting the measure, there are perhaps equally surprising allies against it. They include some environmentalists such as Austin’s Save Our Springs group and conservative Tea Party adherents often at odds with environmentalists.
A common theme running through many critiques of the water proposal is that it would create a “slush fund” for infrastructure projects like reservoirs and pipelines, administered through “cronyism” at the newly-configured Texas Water Development Board. The Legislature this year changed the board structure – it now has three Perry appointees who serve as full-time state employees, replacing the previously part-time board with eight members.
Another criticism is that brief legislative language about conservation in the bill proposing the water fund is unclear and might not translate into the actual spending of at least 20 percent of the money on conservation and 10 percent on rural projects and agricultural conservation, as lawmakers stipulated.
Here are some resources for gaining a more detailed understanding of the issue:
Background information in the form of Frequently Asked Questions was published by the Texas Observer here. A different collection of FAQs was published by the Water Development Board here.
The Houston Chronicle examined industry support for Proposition 6 here and the “grass-roots opposition” to the proposal here.
The H2O4Texas coalition, with many backers in the business and industry community, outlined its arguments for the proposal, listing dozens of companies and organizations supporting it here. More supporters are listed here on an affiliated website.
The Bastrop-based Independent Texans organization, prominent in opposing the proposition, published various materials in support of its arguments here. (Independent Texans says its mission is “to unite voters, across partisan lines, to throw the crooks in all parties out, to elect citizen legislators and to establish the democratic republic for which Texas is supposed to stand.”)
The Odessa American, focusing particularly on drought-plagued West Texas, described how the water-fund money would be split up for different projects here.
The San Antonio Express-News published a column by Straus urging a yes vote on the proposal here. It posted a column by Independent Texans director Linda Curtis urging a no vote here.
Texans for Public Justice last week published its analysis detailing contributions to the Water Texas PAC and questioning the reliability of the measure’s water-conservation provision here.
The Sierra Club, meanwhile, published a statement here last week, asserting that the conservation commitment is solid and that “some groups are trying to trick voters into thinking it doesn’t exist.” Luke Metzger of Environment Texas wrote a column in the Houston Chronicle, posted here, arguing for passage.
– Bill Dawson
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons