Our Water Matters

Texas water legislation update

As the 88th Legislature nears the close of its regular session, “Our Water Matters” takes a look at what Dr. Todd Votteler, editor-in-chief of the website Texas+Water, has called “the most significant legislative session for Texas water since 2013.”

In the Texas Senate, the key committee for water legislation is the Water, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by Senator Charles Perry (R) of Lubbock. Our own state Senator César Blanco also serves on this important committee. In the Texas House of Representatives, the key committee for water legislation is the Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Representative Tracy King (D) of Uvalde. 

One of the most consequential pieces of water legislation this session is Senate Bill 28, which would use some of the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget surplus to create a new Water for Texas Fund to support improvements to the state’s outmoded and leaking water infrastructure, among other things. According to Robert Mace, chief water policy officer at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, SB28 is significant because it would take state water infrastructure funding, which has traditionally gone to the major cities, and direct it to “take care of rural Texas.” The Big Bend region could greatly benefit from the Water for Texas Fund as local water infrastructure efforts gather speed in coming years. However, according to Vanessa Puig-Williams, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas Water Program, “It remains to be seen what the final legislation and amount of funding will be.” 

Other major water-related bills that have passed both the Senate and House include SB 1047 and its House companion HB 2757. These bills authorize the Texas Produced Water Consortium to develop a pilot project to demonstrate produced water recycling feasibility. “Produced water” is the toxic water that returns to the surface in oil and gas operations using unconventional techniques, such as “fracking.” According to Amy Hardberger, director of the Texas Tech Center for Water Law and Policy, “A pilot study is the next logical step towards assessing if there are appropriate reuse alternatives for treated produced water. The pilot should implement best practices, such as preventing discharge until more is learned about what might still be in the water after treatment … It is also important for state agencies to wait for the results of a pilot project before permitting beneficial reuse projects.” (More on this in a future issue of “Our Water Matters.”)

House Bill 3990, which seeks to study the connection between groundwater and surface water, seems to be stalled, according to Puig-Williams, “because of a misperception that [the science] will negatively impact private property rights.” Texas law currently recognizes no interaction between surface water (which is owned by the state) and groundwater (which is the property of the surface owner). Carlos Rubinstein, former head of the Texas Water Development Board, also lamented the apparent death of HB 3990, stating that, “We continue to shy away from recognizing, studying, and better quantifying the degree to which groundwater and surface water interact in Texas. The fact is that groundwater and surface water do interact and are critical to preserving property interests in water.” These scientific efforts could fall to local entities, like the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District, which is currently contemplating a groundwater/surface water interaction study on the Alamito Creek, with or without funding and leadership from the state.

Leah Martinsson, executive director of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, sounded an upbeat note by stating that “a lot remains to be seen during these final two weeks. Really anything can happen –– even bills that have officially ‘died’ could be revived through a floor amendment to another bill so long as it is germane to the subject of the original bill.”

Perhaps the greatest achievement for water legislation has been the creation of the Texas House Water Caucus, whose 70+ members include our own state Representative Eddie Morales. Rubinstein calls the caucus “transformative” because it demonstrates lawmakers’ understanding that “water deserves continuous focus,” while Puig-Williams describes the “first-ever bipartisan water caucus” in Texas as “a huge win for raising awareness, educating members, and creating new water champions.” 

To learn more about current Texas water legislation, visit texaspluswater.wp.txstate.edu.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]