Critical vote looms as water initiatives during session take effect


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

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Posted on September 3, 2013 at 6:25 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 3 at 6:41 PM

AUSTIN -- As the summer sun glares down upon Texas, the future of drought-stricken water supplies in the growing state of 26 million people is up in the air. 
"It's just an essential part of Texas and Texans' life," Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) told those gathered at Tuesday's meeting of the Texas Water Development Board. 
As part of a restructuring measure passed during the regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, Perry swore in the board's first three full-time members before Tuesday's scheduled meeting. Mary Ann Williamson, Bech Bruun and board chairman Carlos Rubinstein will take over the agency previously led by a half dozen part-time volunteers.
A former water master for the Rio Grande Valley, Rubinstein will oversee the task of helping finance new water projects across the state. Having worked with stakeholders in an area hard-hit by drought conditions, Rubinstein told media after Tuesday's meeting he has seen the cost of failure to adequately address water issues firsthand.
"Down in the Rio Grande when you had a shortage, the one sector that was most heavily impacted was always agriculture because of the way water is managed in the river," Rubinstein told KVUE. "So you get to look at someone in the face and tell them you can't divert water, you know that you're killing their crop. And when you have to live things like that, you get it."
"We don't know if the drought that we're in right now will end up being a new drought of record," said Rubinstein, referring to the ten years between 1947 and 1957 that cost the modern equivalent of tens of billions of dollars. If current conditions worsen, Rubinstein says severe water shortages could threaten to drive down crop yields while driving up food prices and water bills.
The board's restructuring comes as part of a package of measures passed during a legislative session that began with a plea from the governor himself. 
"This session we need to deal with our state's infrastructure needs," Perry told lawmakers during his January State of the State address. "We must particularly address our growing needs in water and transportation."
At the time, Perry suggested part of the answer may lie in the state's roughly $8 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, more commonly referred to as the rainy day fund. According to the Biennial Revenue Estimate released by the state comptroller that same month, the fund is expected to top nearly $12 billion by 2015.
"While we cannot, and we will not raid that fund to meet ongoing expenses, we also shouldn't accumulate billions more than is necessary," Perry said in January. "That's why I support a move to utilize $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund for a one-time investment in infrastructure programs."
Lawmakers ultimately passed a measure during the regular session to ask voters to approve moving $2 billion from the fund to the board's control, to be used as seed money for a water development bank intended to provide financing for regional water projects. Since withdrawing money from the rainy day fund requires a constitutional amendment, voters will be asked to vote in favor of Prop. 6 on the November ballot.
"With voter approval this fall, this $2 billion investment will be enough to fulfill the 2012 State Water Plan, securing our water supplies for generations," Perry said Tuesday. "Every available resource we invest in water now is an investment in the future of Texas, and a way to keep our state the best place to live and to work, to build a business and to raise a family."
State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee and author of the bill restructuring the Texas Water Development Board, put it more bluntly.
"Prop. 6 could potentially be the most important vote you will ever make in your lifetime," said Fraser. "Because we are guaranteeing with your vote that we are going to have a supply of water that we can pass on to our children, our grandchildren."
With just two months for voters to make a decision, it's a debate that will likely only heat up.