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Big Money, Drought Concerns Spur Approval Of State Water Fund

Shelley Kofler

A million-dollar campaign by a political action committee and support from top elected officials helped grease the wheels for passage of Proposition 6, which creates a $2 billion fund to finance water projects.

About 73 percent of Texas voters gave their blessing to the measure, which was promoted by TV ads featuring Nolan Ryan.

At a Tuesday night victory celebration in Austin, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said backing for the water fund brought together groups who don’t always get along -- Democrats and Republicans, as well as conservatives like Gov. Rick Perry and conservationists in the Sierra Club.

“Small businesses, manufacturing, the energy industry, farmers and ranchers all came together very strongly,” Straus said.

What they supported was moving $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day savings account, supported by oil and gas tax revenues, to the Texas Water Development Board.  The board will use the money to lower the interest rate on loans needed to build water projects, or defer bond payments until a project is completed.

Linda Christie, government affairs direction for the Tarrant Regional Water District, says that can cut millions from the price tag of an expensive water pipeline or reservoir.

“That’s tremendous because that’s a huge cost savings to our customer cities that they can pass on to the citizens using the water,” Christie said.

Opponents raised concerns that a new, full-time board of three appointed by Perry may lack the expertise needed to administer the fund, or may be not be independent enough when deciding who gets the money.

But voters clearly rejected those arguments. 

Straus believes the continuing drought may have convinced them of the urgency in developing new water supplies.

“The recent rains, I think, were a reminder of how little of this wet stuff we’ve seen in the past few years,” Straus said.

The state’s water board must still decide how to prioritize projects to be financed.  Twenty percent of the fund must be used for water conservation projects.  Ten percent must be used to develop water in rural Texas. The first funding is expected in 2015.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.