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Ballot initiative reflects new era for water needs

Texas Water Development Board

In Texas this November, there are no statewide offices on the ballot, but there are decisions for voters. The biggest one has to do with water.

Texas organizes water-related projects into a state water plan. The state plan is broken down into regional plans. The role of lawmakers in Austin isn’t to micromanage which projects go into the plan. The legislature controls the budget - how much money goes to water, and how and when it will be doled out, and so forth. That’s what will be on the ballot this November – funding.

But before we get into that, it’s time to step back. A little context is necessary. Here in Texas, our relationship with water now is different from what it was in the old days.

For much of Texas history, the topic of drought or water shortage brought to mind images of West Texas, and cowboys driving cattle over arid plains. Here in the more lush and green part of the state, we’ve always done pretty well for water. At least in the towns and cities. Of course farmers have always prospered or suffered along with weather patterns, but the municipalities in the eastern part of Texas have generally not had to worry as much about water as those in the deserts of the west.

The first sign of serious statewide water trouble came in the 1950s, when an extended drought devastated Texas agriculture. The drought happened as Texas was urbanizing during the postwar economic boom. It became clear that Texas needed to do something about its water supply. So, the state built reservoirs - lots and lots of them in the 60s and 70s. But those reservoirs aren’t going to be enough for the future. There are two major reasons for that.

One reason is continued urbanization. Texas keeps growing in population and isn’t going to slow down. That growth is occurring mainly in the state’s three big urban centers – Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and the Austin-San Antonio corridor. Those metro areas are only going to get thirstier.

The other reason is environmental. The current drought hasn’t topped the 1950s, but 2011 was the worst single-year drought in the state’s recorded history. This summer hasn’t been too bad, but overall, temperatures are warming, and climate scientists say we should expect Texas to be hotter in the future. That’s bad news for the state’s reservoirs.

And as for groundwater – there are some places where local aquifers have dried up or are expected to be gone within decades. All that to say – Texas government is having to address water issues in a way it’s never had to before.

We’ll take a look at November’s ballot initiative next week on Tomorrow’s Water Today. For KETR News, this is Mark Haslett.

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