Texas water planners facing mounting scrutiny from lawmakers privately drafted an $8 billion list of priority projects for Republican leaders as the state considers ramping up spending to fight a dwindling water supply, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
The list from the Texas Water Development Board had not previously been made public. Questions over whether one even existed have triggered contentious discussions in the Legislature and left some frustrated GOP leaders looking to clean house at an agency they complain is slow and ineffectual at a critical time for the state's natural resources.
The list titled "Potential Priority State Water Plan Projects" is not an official document, but does give insight into where state leaders might prioritize spending. It includes at least five large reservoir projects and a variety of plans to move water from existing resources to towns and cities that need it.
Republican state Sen. Troy Fraser, who has become the most vocal critic of the water board, said Wednesday that agency leaders gave him the list a week after he told them he was filing legislation that would make substantial changes to how they operate.
Fraser said he had asked the agency for three years to produce a list. The one they finally gave him in February didn't satisfy him, he said, because the list of about 20 projects isn't ranked and only addresses large urban areas.
"What we keep asking for is a ranking," Fraser told the AP. "It's as simple as if tomorrow we only had the money to build one project, which project should we pursue? Which would be the No. 1 project? We still don't know."
The AP obtained the list through an open records request for agency emails. Most of the projects on the list are designed to get water to the state's largest population centers.
A historic drought caused an unprecedented $7.6 billion in agricultural losses in 2011 and made water a priority for the Legislature. The drought resulted in severe water restrictions statewide, significantly depleted crucial reservoirs and dried out rivers. While conditions have eased, the state still hasn't fully recovered.
Water board chairman Billy Bradford told the AP the list was created at the request of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Fraser and based on criteria they set forth. Still, he said, the agency delivered the list with unease.
"It was in direct response to a very specific request from them," Bradford said. "And quite frankly, one that we weren't terribly comfortable with. Because really, we never felt like we were in a position to be setting priorities for these regions."
Several bills have been drawn up, including one by Fraser, that propose taking $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to create a revolving loan program so communities can begin working on projects outlined in the state water plan.
Potential Priority Texas Water Projects
The projects, broken down by region and projected cost:
FAR WEST TEXAS
SOUTH TEXAS/RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Development of groundwater projects serving entities with 5,000 population or less, including all county-other users that have identified needs in 2020: $518.8 million
The Texas Water Development Board drafted a list of "Potential Priority State Water Plan Projects" for lawmakers as early as January, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.