Dallas on lookout for water raidersState Legislature's plans may drain well-prepared district
December 4, 2006
By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News
Dallas officials fear that the Legislature may jeopardize decades of local water planning, overhauling state water policy in a way that could threaten North Texas' resources and prompt even tougher limits on water use here.
Texas lawmakers, faced with drought and water shortfalls across the state, acknowledge that they need to address the issue. Dallas officials don't disagree – they just say planning measures shouldn't come at the city's expense.
The legislation they anticipate in the coming months could hinder the city's ability to manage its own water by forcing Dallas to sell or give away its reserves to water-strapped cities across the state; by limiting Dallas' water recycling efforts to send more flow down the Trinity River; or by requiring Dallas water customers to pay a water tax that would benefit only Texas' least-prepared communities.
"Dallas has been on the cutting edge of developing water resources, and the taxpayers have spent a huge amount of money on water," said Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas. "Now that the rest of the state is realizing they have to play catch-up, they want us to help pay for their past unwillingness to bear the cost. That to me is totally unfair."
With the state's population booming, planning for an adequate long-term water supply has become a priority for officials at all levels of government. The pressure's already on locally – Dallas may be forced to help Irving ease massive water shortages, which could force greater restrictions on Dallas' water customers.
Meanwhile, Dallas is pouring unprecedented resources into lobbying on the issue, paying nearly $125,000 to a private firm to protect the city's water rights.
North Texas shouldn't be punished, Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm said, for being better-prepared than some of its neighbors.
"We've been good planners," she said, "and no one should take advantage of our hard work and investment."
Lawmakers say that while the issue will be "huge" in the session that starts in January, water legislation won't live up to Dallas' worst nightmares.
Sen. Kip Averitt, the McGregor Republican who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said he expects to see legislation soon that focuses on water reuse, conservation, and environmental flows – the scientific term for balancing river and lake ecosystems with human water needs. He said a water customer tax is, so far, not part of the plan to fund statewide water infrastructure projects.
But when limited resources are at stake, Dallas officials say, a bill meant to hydrate parts of the state could parch others. Rainfall varies significantly from year to year, from east to west, from urban center to farm town. Populations are exploding regardless of where the water is, while the drought drains some of the best-prepared water districts.
Dallas Water Utilities is relatively comfortable, even though its sources are 35 percent depleted. The North Texas Municipal Water District, meanwhile, is strapped. Its main reservoir – Lavon Lake – is 63 percent depleted, and Lake Chapman, its secondary reservoir, is so low that the district is no longer taking water from it.
Flood of bills expected
Experts say a legislative approach to state water planning is long overdue – and elected officials thought it would happen two years ago. State water districts and water development companies spent at least $5.3 million lobbying for water interests in that session, according to figures compiled by Texans for Public Justice, a lobbying watchdog group.
They were left largely unsatisfied.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst declared water a priority in the 2005 session and led the charge to change state water policies. But the bottled water tax he proposed to finance water projects was rejected. And while the Senate backed a bill to define water-planning strategies at the state level and create a user tax to fund new water infrastructure, the measure was never brought up for a House vote.
A key element – an analysis of how much water rivers need to maintain their ecosystems, and how much municipalities can realistically draw from them – was reincarnated later in a special "environmental flows" committee appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.
Dallas officials figure that water measures will get much further this time, and they want to be ready.
Some elements of a comprehensive water bill, like conservation and planning measures recommended in a state board's recently approved plan, would be beneficial, they say. That plan, updated every five years, is a blueprint to meet a projected shortfall by 2060.
Others, elected officials say, could threaten Dallas' water rights and supply – and the pocketbooks of its ratepayers.
Dallas' chief lobbyist, Larry Casto, said that an across-the-board tax on Texas water customers, suggested in past sessions to fund water infrastructure in the neediest parts of the state, could give Dallas residents little while rewarding cities that have ignored planning.
"There are cities that have crossed their fingers and hoped for rain, have seen bond elections go down in flames without ever having built anything," said Mr. Casto, who will work with premier consulting firm HillCo Partners to protect Dallas' water rights. "If you're a Dallas customer, you've already paid for your reservoir system."
Going with the flow
Then there's environmental flow. It's a popular notion, and something the state may strive to regulate, Mr. Casto said. But it's also something Dallas, a water-rich city at the top of the Trinity River, must watch closely. If a powerful lobby of parched cities across Texas demands that Dallas send more water down the river, he said, North Texas could see decades of deliberate planning flushed away.
An example: The state could require Dallas to get a special permit to recycle wastewater, instead of sending it downstream. Long term, said Assistant City Manager Ramon Miguez, Dallas intends to supplement its supply with 60 million gallons of recycled water a day.
State Rep. Robert Puente, the San Antonio Democrat who leads the House Natural Resources Committee, said recommendations from the Governor's Environmental Flows Advisory Committee will be considered in the upcoming session. But he said legislation will be based on science, not politics.
"We need to make sure there's enough water in our lakes and rivers to get all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico," he said.
Other water priorities for Dallas include asking the state to stop fining cities for "unpreventable" water main spills. The state fined Dallas $7,500 last year for a main break that leaked chlorinated water into a stream and killed fish – a break related to shifting soil quality. The city is challenging the fine.