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SWIFT: Funding of Water Projects in the State of Texas

Last November saw a rare moment of Texas bipartisan victory, when Republicans and Democrats successfully lobbied voters to approve Proposition 6. The proposition’s passage, along with the earlier passage of House Bill 4, means the state was able to use a one-time, $2 billion investment from Texas’s Rainy Day Fund to create the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT). SWIFT will leverage funding up to $30 billion in water projects over the next 50 years. The passage of Proposition 6 also marks the first time Texas has funded a state water plan.  Now the ball is in the court of local entities across the state.

Regional water planning groups will submit draft prioritization of projects this summer, according to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). All projects in the state water plan will be eligible for SWIFT support, including conservation, desalination, and new water sources. By December of this year, the TWDB is scheduled to provide a SWIFT implementation report to the Legislature and Governor’s office. The TWDB could finalize the process for approving loans by early 2015.

“It’s going to depend on when [water] reinforcements are needed, and by whom,” Elizabeth Fazio, Director of the Committee on Natural Resources at Texas House of Representatives, said of what the next steps are in using that funding to make projects a reality. “The entities themselves have to be willing to build the [proposed] projects, and for the most part projects will be based off of how much an entity in a local area needs the water and can balance that with raising water rates.”

In San Antonio, for instance, a San Antonio Water System (SAWS) brackish water desalination facility has seen the completion of its first phase, but will look at Prop. 6 for funding help with phases two and three. Those two phases are expected to cost about $115 million.  SAWS has also said that Prop. 6 could help finance added collection and treatment of Carrizo Aquifer water.

At least 20 percent of SWIFT’s financial assistance must go toward conservation measures, which means doing more than drought stage cutbacks on water use.

“In order to be eligible for [state water] financing, entities will be required to submit plans and implement them, and that’s separate from drought contingency plans,” Fazio says. “That will also give regions more opportunity for conservation in a drought.”

One of the biggest challenges in moving water projects from conception to reality will be local consensus. While the state water plan and SWIFT provide state support, Texas’s water landscape has always been, and will continue to be, regionally driven.

“Water’s never been treated on a state level,” Fazio says. “The state needs to continue to support local entities, but it’s local decision. There are areas in Texas where locals within a region have a hard time getting a consensus. They’ll say ‘the state needs to do this or that,’ etc. But even before SB 1 that created the regional planning process, it was still up to local entities to build and pay for projects. Lots of western states are developing that model, and Texas is a model for that process. Texas is not a one-size-fits-all state with the diversity we have in geography and climate, which is why the local process really does work.”

All that means we won’t see large scale projects as a result of state water funding for some time, as Texas’ regional groups put together their proposals. Between cities, rural areas, and industry, it’s certain that there will be many voices at the table during that process.

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