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A bipartisan group of state lawmakers plans to spend part of its time in Austin this year highlighting the state’s increasingly fragile water infrastructure.
Texas Water Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on creating a sustainable water system in Texas, announced the new group, called the Texas House Water Caucus, this week.
The caucus, believed to be the first of its kind at the Capitol, includes 38 legislators from the Texas House of Representatives, led by Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville. King chaired the House Natural Resources Committee during the last regular legislative session. The caucus won’t focus on passing or advocating for any specific pieces of legislation, those familiar with the group say. Instead, it will prioritize educating fellow state lawmakers about water security issues.
“The caucus was really informed by a recognition of the amount of turnover at the Capitol and how many of our Texas water champions were leaving office,” said Sarah Schlessinger, CEO of Texas Water Foundation. “It’s about getting folks comfortable and knowledgeable about what’s happening and to prioritize water as an important topic this session.”
Aging infrastructure and limited investments have left Texas’ water infrastructure fragile, especially in rural communities, where a lack of human resources compounds the problem.
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Last year, there were more than 3,000 boil-water notices issued across the state. Such warnings are often issued when water quality is in doubt. Contributing factors can include water main breaks and drops in water pressure. According to a Texas Tribune analysis of data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, seven of the 10 water entities that issued the most boil-water notices last year were in rural parts of East Texas.
The pace of boil-water notices has not slowed.. Since the new year, there have been at least 79 of them, or about six notices per day, according to a spokesperson from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Texas’ water supply is also becoming less reliable as the state’s population continues to grow and strain already limited resources. Hotter temperatures caused by climate change accelerate water evaporation from Texas rivers and reservoirs, which account for roughly half of Texas’ existing water supply.
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“Water security is critically important to all Texans and our economy,” King said in a statement. “We must continue to innovate, invest and strategize long-term to manage our water resources efficiently.”
The House Water Caucus was formed through a transparent process, where any representative could participate, Schlessinger said. She added that she expects more members to join as the legislative session progresses.
“Water is one of those topics where it’s easy to get bipartisan support around,” she said. “It’s a topic that is very unifying.”
But a challenge is understanding the complexities of Texas’ water supply and funding systems in different regions of a geographically diverse state. To address this knowledge gap, the group plans to launch a website for finding water resources. The tool will include legislative reports related to water and publications from nonprofits and research institutes, as well as maps and visualizations.
The caucus will also hold meetings at the Capitol to educate legislative staff about water infrastructure and conservation.
Historically, water-related policies have been passed in the wake of disasters such as floods or droughts. The caucus is intended to elevate water issues to the forefront so lawmakers prioritize water policy even when there is no discernable disaster.
“Water is one of the most important policy issues facing the state,” said state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, one of the members of the caucus. “Hopefully we’re not just reactive to droughts and we can really make good headway in preparing Texas for the future.”
Perry Fowler, executive director of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network, said he is hopeful that the legislature will use some of the historic state budget to address water issues, including staffing shortages.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one-third of employees in the water sector will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years.
“We’re going to need to have more personnel on the water board,” Perry said. “There are significant workforce concerns that are out there.”
Disclosure: Texas Water Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.