Facing a growing population and a stagnant water supply, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a plan Tuesday that will authorize $2 billion in state funding to finance 50 years worth of water infrastructure projects.
The move doesn't exactly amount to new money to fund water projects, but it isn't a new tax either.
The $2 billion will be used to offer favorable financing terms for public agencies pursuing projects designed to conserve or reuse water, or create new taps of reservoirs designed to expand the water supply. The money will be paid back as part of a revolving loan fund.
The money will come via a transfer from the state's rainy day fund, which is flush as a result of oil and gas revenue.
"Today, the people of Texas made history, ensuring we’ll have the water we need to grow and thrive for the next five decades, without raising state taxes," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. "Now it’s time to get to work on the projects that’ll help us meet our growing water needs, preserving and improving both our economic strength and quality of life."
The move is the second time in two years Texas voters have said "yes" to big money for water projects. In 2011, they approved $6 billion in bonding authority for the state's water board to help fund water projects.
The Texas Water Development Board will use the $2 billion to offer regional and local authorities the ability to do projects at lower interest rates, with longer payment periods or with payment deferrals, said Merry Klonower, a spokeswoman for the Texas Water Development Board. "Those types of financing packages are what incentivizes them to move forward with building their water supply projects," Klonower said last month.
State Sen. Troy Fraser, who sits on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, said voters were aware of just how pressing the issue is, given the persistent drought conditions. "Ninety percent of the state is in a moderate or severe drought," Fraser said last month. "It's on people's minds."
Advocates for approval said the state is projected to almost double in population by 2060, while water supplies could remain stagnant or even dip 10 percent in the same time period.
Failure to pursue projects outlined in the state's 50-year water plan could mean that up to half the state would lack access to an adequate water supply during drought periods. Advocates for water infrastructure portrayed the situation as an economic development issue since businesses may think twice about expanding or moving to Texas given the uncertainty about water resources.
"The issue is real. It's not something that's in someone's imagination," said state Rep. Doug Miller, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, in an interview Wednesday morning. "It's a real threat to the future of the state."
The favorable vote now triggers a timeline intended to ensure the projects start relatively quickly. State leaders will soon start appointing members to a water finance advisory committee, while the Texas Water Redevelopment Board will create a group tasked with prioritizing projects.
By March 2015, the board must adopt rules pertaining to how the funds will be prioritized and how the funding will be allocated.
Thus, voters approved the financing despite not knowing, at this point, exactly how projects will be prioritized. "I -- as well as a number of my colleagues -- recognize the trust that's been placed in us and hold that trust dearly," Miller said.