For Immediate Release Thursday, October 31, 2013:
CONTACT: Ken Kramer, Sierra Club, (512) 477-1729x106, firstname.lastname@example.org
Proposition 6 Conservation Commitment – Trick or Treat?
Some of the groups opposing Proposition 6 – the proposed state constitutional amendment to establish new state water funds for Texas – are charging that the commitment for funding water conservation & reuse in the enabling legislation for Prop 6 is some kind of trick. The refrain is that there is no “guarantee” that money will go to conservation projects and that the Texas Legislature is only interested in helping to finance water infrastructure projects. So what’s the truth here? Is the conservation commitment a trick or will it be a treat for water conservationists? The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club believes that the Legislature has made a firm commitment to fund conservation and that those responsible for implementing state financial assistance understand that they have a mandate to foster conservation.
The language in House Bill 4, the enabling law whose provisions take effect if Prop 6 is passed by the voters, says that the Texas Water Development Board (the state water planning and financing agency) “shall undertake to apply not less than…20 percent [of the funds] to support projects…including agricultural irrigation projects, that are designed for water conservation or reuse” and “…not less than 10 percent to support projects…that are for rural subdivisions…or agricultural water conservation.” [The deleted words in this quotation are primarily statutory citations.] Opponents of Prop 6 focus on the words “shall undertake to apply…” and claim that to be a loophole that will allow state water officials off the hook to spend the required money for conservation projects.
That’s an apparition. There has to be some flexible language in the law in case the regional water planning groups do not include sufficient water conservation projects in their plans that would allow that percentage of funds to be reached. That’s unlikely, but it could happen. Moreover, since conservation is usually the most cost-effective water supply measure, it may be that conservation will meet a much bigger percentage of water needs than the percentage of funding earmarked for conservation. Finally, if water user groups don’t need state financial assistance to implement some of their conservation projects, the applications for financial support from the Water Development Board might not require an amount of money that would meet the percentage earmarked for conservation. All of this just underscores the importance of citizens being involved in the regional water planning process in their area to make sure that conservation projects are included in their respective plans and receive a high priority from the planning group.
However, the Legislature made clear during the regular state legislative session in the spring of 2013 when passing House Bill 4 that the conservation commitment is a mandate, not just a “pretty please.” When the Texas House debated House Bill 4 on the floor of the House, the State Rep. Allan Ritter and the co-sponsors of the legislation actively opposed, and the full House decisively voted down, a proposed amendment by State Rep. Phil King that would have made the 20% conservation earmark “permissive” rather than mandatory (his amendment would have changed the word “shall” in the legislation to “may”).
The folks who have the responsibility of implementing House Bill 4 agree. New chairman of the Texas Water Development Board Carlos Rubinstein has made clear in public that he considers the 20% earmark to be a “floor,” not a “ceiling” for funding conservation projects. The Texas Water Development Board will be in a position to actively shape the process for promoting water conservation through the rulemaking process and the policies it adopts to implement Prop 6 and House Bill 4. The Board Chairman’s perspective will shape that process, and groups such as the state Water Conservation Advisory Council (on which the Sierra Club and many other dedicated conservation-oriented groups are represented), which advises the Water Development Board on its conservation activities, will be involved in that process as well.
Although most of the discussion about conservation and Prop 6/House Bill 4 has been about the 20% commitment (and the other 10% for rural projects, which could actually fund additional agricultural conservation projects ), it should be noted that other provisions of House Bill 4 also emphasize conservation. Notably in the criteria that the Water Development Board must consider in prioritizing water plan projects for state financial assistance is “the demonstrated or projected effect of the project on water conservation, including preventing the loss of water....” Also, House Bill 4 says in effect that an applicant for state financial assistance for a water project may not receive that assistance if an applicant has failed to “submit or implement a water conservation plan….” These are further indications that the Legislature wants conservation to be taken seriously in the implementation of the new state water funds.
That seriousness is further confirmed by several other pieces of legislation that were passed and appropriations of money made in the regular session of the Legislature this past spring. Those actions include (but are not limited to):
• appropriating funds for water conservation education grants,
• creating new requirements for annual water loss audits by all but the smallest retail water utilities in the state,
• passing a new law strengthening the ability of homeowners living in neighborhoods with homeowner associations to be able to install water conserving or drought resistant outdoor landscaping,
• establishing legal provisions requiring all applicants for state financial assistance for water projects with unacceptable levels of water loss to work with the Water Development Board to acquire funds to reduce that water loss, and
• creating new mechanisms such as authorization for special local government districts to assist property owners in making improvements to the property to reduce water consumption.
None of these legislative actions have received anywhere near the media or public attention that House Bill 4 and Prop 6 have, of course, but they provide an important backdrop to how House Bill 4 fits into the larger thrust for enhancing water conservation.
The only trick involved in the conservation commitment under Prop 6 is how some groups are trying to trick voters into thinking it doesn’t exist.