Texas bill would drastically revamp water agency


PAUL J. WEBER,Associated Press RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — New revisions to a major water bill calls for ousting the six-member Texas Water Development Board and its top official before the state embarks on a new $2 billion fund to provide low-interest loans for projects.

A historic drought in 2011 spurred Gov. Rick Perry and lawmakers to propose the fund, which would provide communities the money to push ahead with long-needed infrastructure projects. The revamped bill is being returned to the Texas House and Senate for final approval with just one week remaining in the 140-day legislative session, in which the urgency of water funding has snagged budget talks and led to Perry to threaten lawmakers he would extend their work into June should they not deliver on the fund.

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The measure, obtained by The Associated Press, calls for a drastic overhaul of the water board, cutting the number of board members in half and requiring regions to prioritize projects, something lawmakers have blasted the current board for failing to do. None of the current board members would be eligible for reappointment — meaning the entire current six-member state water board, as well as executive administrator Melanie Callahan, would be replaced.

Billy Bradford, current chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, did not return a phone message Sunday seeking comment.

Agency spokeswoman Merry Klonower said the agency cannot comment on proposed legislation. As of Friday afternoon, she said they had not seen the proposed bill.

Republican House Speaker Joe Straus favorably greeted the revised bill, which is a compromise between House and Senate negotiators that was wrapped up this weekend.

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“Speaker Straus has stressed the importance of meeting our growing state’s water needs for well over a year and in building the agenda for this session, and is pleased that there is a way forward to fund the state water plan,” spokeswoman Erin Daly said Sunday.

Environment groups applauded the revised bill that was wrapped up this weekend. Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy, said the proposal would provide good oversight of the distribution of funds.

“If you look at the water plan right now, it’s a completely unstructured capital improvement program,” Huffman said Sunday.

The combination of the water board setting priorities based on a community’s ability to repay a loan and regions considering a project’s viability is key, she added.

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“I also like the fact that the state is not just writing a blank check. That’s incredibly important,” Huffman said.

The overhaul would only take effect if Texas voters in November approve the creation of the new water fund, which would be called the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. It would be initially stocked with $2 billion to finance projects in the state water plan, and lawmakers say that money would multiply through interest earnings and revenue bonds.

Some lawmakers have criticized the state water board, which has overseen water planning in the state for decades, as inefficient. The proposed bill aims to address those issues.

Bradford, the board’s current chairman, has defended the agency’s performance and management.

One major change calls for the three new board members — all of whom would be appointed by Perry — to serve full-time. Currently, board members are appointed by Perry but serve part-time.

Board members and the agency have rebuffed criticism that they don’t prioritize projects, saying they don’t have that authority. In March, the AP obtained an $8 billion list of priority projects the agency had compiled after repeated prodding by lawmakers. Those projects included several in large population areas, but the agency’s criteria for compiling the list was unclear.

The proposed bill requires regional planning boards to prioritize projects using set standards, including how soon it is needed, as well as its feasibility, viability and sustainability. A comprehensive and approved list would have to be submitted by September 2014.

The board itself would then establish a point system for awarding loans, giving the highest grades to those that serve large populations and provide assistance to diverse urban and rural areas. Consideration would also be given to a town or city’s available capital to help finance a project.

Before anything could happen, though, Perry would need to appoint new, full-time board members by September 2013. The bill says that one member would have to have engineering experience, another would need a background in finance and the third would have to be from either the field of law or business.

The water board was established in 1957 as a direct response to a nearly decade-long drought that remains the basis of all water planning in Texas. The agency distributes grants and low-interest loans to towns and cities and oversees the publication of a statewide water plan every five years. That plan has been unfunded, and state lawmakers prioritized providing money for the projects this session.