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Bipartisan lawmakers seek to highlight state’s water needs

A bipartisan group of state legislators plans to spend some of their time in Austin this year talking about the state’s water infrastructure.

The Texas Water Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to building a sustainable water system in Texas, this week announced the creation of a new group called Texas House Water Caucus.

The caucus, considered the first of its kind in the Capitol, includes 38 lawmakers from the Texas House of Representatives, led by Rep. Tracey King, D-Batesville. King chaired the House Natural Resources Committee in the last regular legislative session.

According to those familiar with the group, the caucus will not focus on passing or defending any specific piece of legislation. Instead, he will prioritize educating fellow state legislators about water security.

“The caucus was really informed by the recognition of the volume of turnover at the Capitol and how many of our Texas water champions are leaving office,” said Sarah Schlessinger, CEO of the Texas Water Foundation. “It’s about getting people comfortable and aware of what’s going on and prioritizing water as an important topic for this session.”

Aging infrastructure and limited investment have made Texas’ water infrastructure fragile, especially in rural communities where a lack of human resources exacerbates the problem.

Over 3,000 boil water notices were issued across the state last year. Such warnings are often issued when water quality is in doubt. Contributing factors can be breaks in water mains and a drop in water pressure.

Seven of the 10 water utilities that issued the most boil water notices last year were in rural East Texas, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of data from the Texas Environmental Quality Commission.

The pace of boil water notifications hasn’t slowed down. Since the new year, there have been at least 79, or about six notifications a day, according to a spokesman for the Texas Environmental Quality Commission.

Texas’ water supply is also becoming less reliable as the state’s population continues to grow and deplete already limited resources. Warmer temperatures caused by climate change are accelerating the evaporation of water from Texas’ rivers and reservoirs, which account for about half of Texas’ existing water supply.

“Water security is critical to all Texans and our economy,” King said in a statement. “We must continue to innovate, invest and develop long-term strategies to effectively manage our water resources.”

According to Schlesinger, the House Water Caucus was formed through a transparent process in which any representative could participate. She added that she expects more members to join as the legislative session progresses.

“Water is one of those topics where it’s easy to get bipartisan support,” she said. “It’s a very unifying theme.”

But the challenge is to understand the complexities of Texas’ water supply and financing systems across the geographically diverse state. To fill this knowledge gap, the group plans to launch a website to search for water resources. The tool will include water-related legislative reports and publications from non-profit organizations and research institutions, as well as maps and visualizations.

The caucus will also hold meetings at the Capitol to educate legislators on water infrastructure and conservation issues.

Historically, water policy has been adopted after natural disasters such as floods or droughts. The caucus is meant to bring water issues to the fore so that lawmakers will prioritize water policy even when there are no obvious disasters.

“Water is one of the most important policy issues facing the state,” said Four Price State Representative, R-Amarillo, one of the caucus members. “Hopefully we’re not just responding to drought and we can actually make significant progress in preparing Texas for the future.”

Perry Fowler, chief executive of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network, said he hopes the legislature will allocate a portion of the state’s historic budget to address water issues, including staffing shortages.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in the next 10 years, a third of water sector workers will be eligible for a pension.

“We will need more staff in water management,” Perry said. “There are serious staffing issues.”

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