Today in Austin a Senate Committee once again tackled a problem that has haunted Texas since the days of the frontier. That problem is how to fairly distribute the state's limited supply of water.
Chaired by Senator Kenneth Armbrister of Victoria, the Senate Select Committee on Water Policy will examine water management in the state, including how the state government as well as local authorities control the precious resource.
Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., of Brownsville called water "the lifeblood of the border", saying that his district depended almost exclusively on the Rio Grande for its supply and that his priorities included finding water conservation methods and ways to get Mexico to pay its water debt to the United States. He also said that even in the 21st Century, many border residents are forced to do without running water in their homes, something other Texans take for granted.
Chairman Armbrister replied that this committee was not set up to undo work that had been previously done, that they would build upon the work of the local authorities. Before the meeting, he said that the committee is aware that water is an emotional issue to Texans. He said in Texas the old saying is true that "Whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'".
Senator Eliot Shapleigh noted that when you consider the federal water issue, that of getting Mexico to replace the water that it has taken from the Rio Grande over the years, the issue becomes highly complex. He wants the committee to be briefed on what the state can do within the bounds of the international treaties that govern international water rights.
Senator Frank Madla of San Antonio said that he and his staff had already spent time in west Texas, talking with people about proposals to take water from that part of the state for use elsewhere. Such proposals, Madla said, are strongly opposed by local residents. He urged state agencies to determine if any water is available for export before the water rights for state lands are released.
Chairman Armbrister told the committee that those proposals, put forth by the General Land Office, were only tentative and that "anytime you talk about a new idea, there's a lot of mystery trying to see if it's feasible."
Each of today's invited witnesses were from a state agency that deals with water. The first was Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs. She said "if you 'de-water' an area, you have excluded all economic activity in an area...you don't strip one region of water". She said that agriculture had actually reduced its use of water since the 1970s, due to new conservation methods. "If we're going to divert water from one area of the state to another, we'd better think long and hard before we do it." In other areas, such as southern California where water had been sold or "mined", she said that agriculture had simply disappeared and that consumers were paying higher prices for imported produce.
Margaret Hoffman from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality then described how her agency handles water permits and helps manage water in the Rio Grande and the supply to the state's water utilities, along with how it evaluates water quality.
Kevin Ward from the Texas Water Development Board focused on groundwater management and state and regional water planning. He said the Legislature has focused on groundwater management districts as the primary tool for groundwater planning and added that his agency was on schedule in this process. He said a Water Conservation Task Force was also examining the best ways to cut water use, and should have a report by November 1.
Also testifying today was Larry McKinney of the Parks and Wildlife Department, who said his department's main concern is to ensure that the needs of wildlife are considered in any water plan.
The Senate Select Committee on Water Policy is chaired by Senator Kenneth Armbrister. Members include Senators Kip Averitt, Robert Deuell, Robert Duncan, Troy Fraser, Jon Lindsay, Eddie Lucio, Frank Madla, Eliot Shapleigh, Todd Staples and Tommy Williams. The Committee recessed subject to the call of the chair. Other meetings will be held around the state during the spring and summer. The next meeting will be February 3 in El Paso.