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Gridlocked: The Texas Water Grid Debate

Facing a charge to study the merits of Texas water markets and a statewide water grid to facilitate them, members Texas House Committee on Natural Resources found that parties on all sides of the sensitive issue remain divided.

Of the nine interim charges handed down to the committee by House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), eight of them revolve around the precious and coveted resource that is water. As the Committee met in early February, the traditional urban/rural dividing lines were once again present, with many rural communities teaming up with environmental groups in hopes of fighting off what is perceived as a raid on their valuable asset.

While there has been recent legislative movement to focus on the state’s water needs, the Austin American-Statesman’s Asher Price noted that a proposal to at least study the issue was killed in the last legislative session, again the victim of the urban/rural standoff. For years the state has been fissured by dispute between the water haves and have-nots, with an alphabet soup of river authorities, groundwater districts and state agencies grappling with how to meet the needs of growing cities, explained Price. While the divide still remains, the committee hearing and the discussion on water markets were tangible steps toward addressing the issue for all Texans.

In theory, water markets may be established as an appropriate means to distribute the scarce resource in areas where there is increased demand. Water trading markets also aim to “drought-proof” a region from periods of long sustained drought. Perhaps the most successful real-world application of a water market has been in Australia, where trading water like other commodities and placing real value on the resource has created a true economic incentive to conserve it.

In Texas, where the population has surged by over 1.8 million people since the last census in 2010, the growing demand for water has not been lost on legislative leaders. As the Committee chair Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) noted at the hearing: “With our sustained population growth that we’re blessed with … there has to be infrastructure there to deal with [this issue].”

Some of the debate at the hearing revolved around how the infrastructure might best be set up in order to serve the varying regional needs of such a large state. Representative Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) stated the importance of connecting all Texas towns, both large and small—to the grid, so they would never have face the possibility of running out of water.

On the other hand, Ken Kramer of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, testified about his suspicions on why the legislature would consider a massive, centralized water grid. Kramer supposed that the electric-power industry would be very interested in the grid due to the need for great amounts of power to pump water from sea level to the High Plains. While Kramer and others did testify that water markets should be studied in Texas, he also advocated the importance of conservation, and noted the conservation efforts of cities like El Paso and San Antonio.

With many questions yet unanswered, and the lingering sense of another battle brewing between rural communities that have the resource and growing urban communities that are ever thirsty for it, the Committee will spend 2016 studying possible incentives for the different areas, and ways that incentives could benefit the state as a whole.

The Committee will next meet to examine how to supply water while respecting private property rights of individual owners. For future meeting schedules, click here.