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Water board travels Texas selling Proposition 6 funding plan

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 by Andy Sevilla

Despite some late year showers in 2013, at least one of which caused devastating flooding in parts of Travis and Hays counties, the downpours did little to break the persistent drought in many parts of Texas, putting communities and economic development interests on high alert.

The Texas Water Development Board, now armed with $2 billion for local water projects, is traveling across the state encouraging local governments to take advantage of a new source of funding, which voters overwhelmingly approved last year to help address state water challenges.

In November 2013, 73 percent of Texas voters approved Proposition 6, a state constitutional amendment that transferred $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to the newly established State Water Implementation Fund for Texas to support projects in the state’s most recent water plan.

“The benefit is that it helps us secure a more reliable water source into the future. And it helps us do it by partnering with entities… by also helping reduce that rate-shock, because of the financial incentives and assistance that we’ll be able to give,” Water Board Chairman Carlos Rubinstein told the Austin Monitor after his meeting with the Hays Caldwell Public Utility Agency in Kyle.

Rubinstein told agency members that although 2013 was wetter than in recent years, “the drought ain’t over.” He said weather predictions this year forecast a 50-50 chance of average rainfall – odds that don’t offer great relief.

“If you look statewide, at this time of the year our reservoirs collectively should be at 82 percent capacity,” Rubinstein said. “And we all know that (Lake) Travis and (Lake Buchanan), for example, are at 36 and 38 (percent capacity). So even though 2013 was wetter, things didn’t get better in that regard.”

And though many thirsty communities need water now, Prop 6 funding will not be available to local governments until 2015, as the agency sets up administrative rules governing how funds will operate and be distributed to projects on the state’s 2012 water plan. Rubinstein said regional water planning groups have until June to take their 2012 list of projects and develop them into a draft priority list, the state water board will offer feedback and finalize the list in September.

According to Texas House Bill 4, however, 20 percent of Prop 6 monies will need to be used for conservation and reuse, and at least 10 percent for rural and agriculture purposes; the remaining dollars could be used for water projects in communities and cities of all sizes.

Rubinstein said a stakeholders group developed uniform standards that all 16 regional water planning groups will use to prioritize projects, including the decade the project is needed, its feasibility, viability, sustainability and cost effectiveness.

Projects that serve large populations, assist a diverse urban and rural population, provide regionalization and meet a high percentage of water users’ needs will receive the highest consideration, according to the standards.

And though Prop 6 dollars will not provide any grants or forgivable loans, Rubinstein said it will provide a source of revenue or security for programs, support low-interest loans, longer repayment terms, incremental repurchase terms for projects with state ownership, 50 percent reduction on interest rate the board borrows against and deferral of loan payments until entities are making some revenue on the projects.

Rubinstein warned that if officials don’t act on water needs now, the effects could have far-reaching consequences in the years to come, particularly 50 years from now when the population is expected to skyrocket by 82 percent to 46 million, up from the present 25 million residents. With the no-action scenario, in 50 years the state would operate with a water deficit of 8.3 million acre-feet.

The whole state used 18 million acre-feet of water in 2011, the driest year on record, according to Rubinstein. An acre-foot of water is the amount of water necessary to cover a one acre to a depth of one foot, or about 326,000 gallons.

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