When Texans head to the ballot box Tuesday they will be asked to approve a one-of-a-kind water conservation tax incentive that appears especially enticing during a record-breaking drought that has sucked dry nearly every area of the state.
The constitutional amendment -- known as Prop 8 -- would give tax breaks to landowners who take measures to conserve water and preserve water quality. (Read about all propositions on Tuesday's ballot here.) The proposal is being hailed as one of the few measures approved by the Legislature last session that received bipartisan support almost every step of the way despite an increasingly acrimonious political environment that has largely divided lawmakers along party lines.
State government experts believe the rule could become an example for how other water-starved states could encourage property owners to conserve the increasingly scarce natural resource.
"It would be a positive example for how you could provide incentives that don't have a lot of regulation attached," said Larry Morandi, director of state policy research at the Denver-based bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, noting that legislative staff from Colorado have already asked to see the Texas statute, if it is approved.
The rule would give landowners who implement water-conserving measures -- such as planting more native grasses that require less water or fencing off streams to prevent erosion -- a lower valuation on their property, similar to how an agricultural or wildlife exemption works.
Prop 8 would allow property owners to opt out of agricultural or wildlife conservation exemptions -- which could be a less cost-effective use of land during a drought -- and instead get the water conservation tax exemption, explained Laura Huffman, state director of the Texas Nature Conservancy, a group that helped write and push the bill through the Legislature.
The tax breaks differ based on how much land a property-owner puts into the program. Since the calculations would be the same as under existing agricultural and wildlife conservation programs it could potentially save them hundreds or even thousands of dollars annually on their property taxes. And that is before accounting for money saved when less water is used.
The municipalities, which collect property taxes, would not lose revenue because these landowners already receive agricultural or wildlife conservation exemptions and would simply be swapping one for another, Huffman added.
Bob Ayres, whose family owns two Central Texas ranches and one in West Texas, said if the measure passes, he may change the use of one of his 7,000-acre Austin-area ranches. The water conservation measures he would take on that ranch in Real County would help drainage into the Edwards Aquifer, an underground reservoir that is the only source of water for San Antonio, a city of more than 1.3 million people.
"It would be good for the state and for people in urban areas who need increased supply of water," said Ayres, who would clear brush and possibly plant native grasses on his family's land if the measure is approved. "It would be good for ranchers too because it's increasing stream flow, that's water that's available for livestock operations."
Morandi said the rule received bipartisan support for several reasons: It's not regulatory, making it popular with conservative Republicans; it is revenue neutral -- meaning it won't cost the state or municipal entities any extra money, key in a weak economy; it builds on an existing agricultural and wildlife tax program so doesn't require any new bureaucratic processes; and it is being pushed in the middle of one of the most severe droughts in Texas history when water is a high priority.
"This doesn't take much. It's an incentive, it's not a mandate and it's one more arrow in the quiver there to try to conserve water and improve water quality," Morandi said.
And since many states in the South and West already have land use tax exemptions in place -- some for agricultural uses, others for wetlands, and several for wildlife conservation -- taking the leap to water conservation and preservation will be relatively easy, especially since these areas have also battled droughts this decade, Morandi added.
"Water in the West doesn't tend to be a partisan issue. It's not Democrats vs Republicans, liberals vs. conservatives," he said. "It's dealing with a public resource that everyone needs."