Texas awards $191 million towards water conservation projects

On July 21, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) awarded $191 million in loans toward water conservation projects. The latest round of funding from the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas (SWIFT) set aside 25% of the total funds for conservation and reuse, including $167,175,000 to the City of Austin for reclaimed water system improvements and an advanced metering infrastructure project.

State law directs TWDB to "undertake to apply" no less than 20 percent of funding for conservation projects over a five year period. However, insufficient funding requests to TWDB meant the state fell well short of that standard in 2015. Breaking past the 20% this year is great news for the success of the law. (TWDB maintains they awarded 35% of the funds to conservation, but I don’t see how the Sabine River Authority project for a new pump station and pipeline counts – their argument is by boosting supply from the Sabine River they’ll “conserve” water from Toledo Bend, but that’s just new supply, not a reduction in consumption).

SWIFT is a powerful instrument to direct Texas water policy. The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) decides which infrastructure projects to fund, including some which could pose significant threats to our environment. We need to make sure TWDB prioritizes investment in projects which will help, rather than harm, our waterways.

It is critical that we make greater progress toward (and beyond) the 20 percent standard in the coming years. The success or failure of the conservation carve-out will inform opinions of the political leadership on the viability of water conservation to serve as a serious water supply strategy.

Of course, TWDB can only fund projects which seek funding from them. We need more water utilities and local governments to develop innovative water strategies which could benefit from SWIFT funding. In particular, there is a growing focus on problems associated with stormwater. Runoff pollution, sewage overflows, and deadly flooding have all highlighted the need to better control stormwater.

However, rather than just try to get rid of stormwater as quickly as possible, we should take advantage of it as a resource. A key solution is mimicking natural techniques for absorbing rain through smarter, greener infrastructure, like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels. Green infrastructure stops rain where it falls, storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally. This reduces or prevents pollution and flooding and allows the stormwater, rather than potable water, to be used to irrigate landscapes.

Despite great progress made towards improving the resilience of Texas' water supply, more needs to be done to ensure sufficient water to meet the ecological needs of our rivers, bays and aquifers. And local investments in green infrastructure to better use stormwater as a resource is a great next step for Texas water policy. 

Luke Metzger is the Director of Environment Texas Research and Policy Center.