Public input on planning is key to developing water for all Texans September 2014
The state of Texas endured some form of drought in every decade of the 20th century. Today, with more than half of the state still in the midst of a drought that began in 2010, the 21st century has continued that trend. During times of drought in Texas, the public has helped shape legislation to address evolving water supply needs. This year, Texans have attended meetings, submitted comments, and signed petitions to voice their feedback on the Lone Star State's most recent water legislation, the creation of a new state water plan funding program. Passed by Texas voters in 2013 as Proposition 6, this new fund will provide low-cost, affordable financing for communities to develop water supply projects in the state water plan.
Historically, the water in rivers and lakes in Texas was subject to overlapping and sometimes conflicting laws. In recent history, legislation has focused more on the management of water resources. This stemmed from Texas' unprecedented Drought of Record from 1950 to 1957. Named for the historical records it set, the Drought of Record's far-reaching economic losses in all parts of the state spurred the creation of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to oversee a water planning process at the statewide level.
"Texas has long been a leader in addressing water needs for the future," says TWDB Chairman Carlos Rubinstein. "The vision of the legislature in 1957 carried the state through the droughts and immense population growth of the 20th century. TWDB was able to help finance much-needed water infrastructure from 1957 forward."
In the 50 years that followed TWDB's inception, the agency also produced several state water plans. Then, in 1996, a one-year drought delivered more annual agricultural losses to Texans than ever before. As a result, the water planning process was revamped to rely more on input at the regional and local level. In 1997, the 75th Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 1 (SB1), creating 16 regional water planning areas, each with its own planning group. Every five years, according to the new legislation, each planning group must develop a regional water plan, and TWDB must compile all 16 into a statewide water plan.
"Regional water planning was a paradigm shift in Texas," says TWDB Board member Bech Bruun. "The state legislature recognized that local and regional leaders needed to be involved and invested in the process so that they were planning for their own futures. The three plans produced so far under the regional planning process—the 2002, 2007, and 2012 State Water Plans—are evidence of the success of the regional water planning process."
Unfortunately, another record-setting drought returned to Texas in September 2010, with a little more than 10 inches of rain falling statewide in the next 12 months. At one point, 97 percent of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought, and 252 of Texas' 254 counties enacted burn bans. A series of wildfires destroyed homes and acres of forestry.
"The 2011 drought, combined with the information in the 2012 State Water Plan, was the catalyst for support from the legislature and citizens of Texas to create funding for projects. We had a plan, and we knew what needed to be done, but communities needed financial assistance to kick-start their projects," says TWDB Board member Kathleen Jackson.
In 2013, the 83rd Texas Legislature and Texas voters created a financial assistance program to help address the state's critical water needs. $2 billion was transferred out of Texas' Rainy Day Fund to kick start the financing of state water plan projects.
Providing this financial assistance requires TWDB to develop rules that will define standards for rural and conservation projects and set prioritization criteria for state water plan projects seeking financial assistance. Setting out to reach all corners of the state, the TWDB held meetings in Austin and Board meetings open to the public in Conroe, Lubbock, Harlingen, and El Paso before the rules were drafted. Once the proposed rules were published in July, the Board held additional meetings in San Antonio, San Angelo, and Ft. Worth to provide more opportunities for the public to comment. The agency accepted comments on the draft rules via email, the TWDB website, and mail. TWDB received more than 100 written comments on the proposed rules and 3 petitions or electronic submissions with a combined total of more than 8,700 individual signatures. In the coming months, TWDB will review all comments and submissions as the rules are finalized. Final rules will be submitted for Board approval in December 2014.
Texas benefits most when Texans are helping from the ground-up. As the state continues to plan for our future water needs, the knowledge of our fellow Texans will be vital to the process, just as it has always been.