Texas burns at record levels, water issues take focus in November election

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September 30, 2011

By Jimmy Ardis

Texas drought conditions: yellow represents abnormally dry areas; dark red represents exceptional drought conditions. Source: National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Texas: Texas voters may be a little thirsty heading to the ballot box in November. Record-breaking droughts and devastating wildfires have reeked havoc on the Lone Star State this year. The Lower Colorado River Authority reports that "the 11 months from October 2010 through August 2011 have been the driest for that 11-month period in Texas since 1895.”[1] Economists estimate over $5.2 billion just in agricultural losses as a result of the prolonged drought.[2] This extreme heat has many Texans thinking about their state's ability to adequately supply them with water in the coming years. Lawmakers seeking solutions to ever-worsening shortages have placed two water-related constitutional amendments on the November ballot. One proposed amendment seeks to add supply by increasing available funding for water projects. The other seeks to combat Texas's water problems by encouraging conservation via tax policy.

Proposition 2 (SJR 4) proposes to increase the total amount of bonds that can be issued by the Texas Water Development Board to $6 billion. Supporters say the additional funding authority is required if the state's water planning and financing agency is to meet the steadily rising demand placed on Texas by population growth and climate. The City of San Angelo's council passed a resolution in support of the proposition on September 20th, citing the need for cost effective programs to ensure adequate supply in the face of growing demand. Those in opposition say the amendment would authorize state debt on a continuing basis and that the power to review the need for such funding should be retained by the voters on a periodic basis. They also argue that while Proposition 2 limits the amount of bonds outstanding at any one time to $6 billion, the cumulative total over time could surpass that mark.[3]

Proposition 8 aims to encourage Texans to use their water more efficiently by providing tax incentives for certain landowners to conserve water. Opponents of the bill say the proposed changes are redundant because they duplicate already available tax incentives for erosion control and habitat stewardship.[3] That said, it's hard to find many Texans speaking out on the subject who oppose Proposition 8. The joint resolution (SJR 16) that got it on the ballot was passed unanimously by the Texas Legislature. In addition to bipartisan political approval, the proposed amendment is supported by business and environmental groups alike. The Nature Conservancy of Texas is a lead supporter, accompanied by the cosmetics namesake Mary Kay, the Greater Houston Partnership, The Sierra Club, and the Texas Wildlife Association.[4]

Regardless if voters choose to pass or reject Propositions 2 and 8, Texas will continually be forced to face the realities imposed by extreme climate conditions intersecting sustained population growth. Texas grew 20.6% from 2000 to 2010, more than double the 9.7% national growth rate - a trend that is predicted to continue.[5] Laura Huffman, the executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, described the state's population spike as "There are a lot more straws in the water." She summed up the issue by stating that ensuring a stable water supply "is the choke point on our state being successful."[6]

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