Water Grab

Why farmers and big-city folk are at war over water. Plus: Jane Nelson for comptroller?

WATER IS ABOUT TO BECOME, if you’ll pardon the pun, a boiling political issue. With the Rio Grande Valley desperately short of water, and El Paso, Corpus Christi, Houston, San Antonio, and suburban Austin all planning to import water from remote sites, anxieties in rural Texas about water grabs by cities are at an all-time high (see “Waterworld,” Environment, September 1995). In West Texas, El Paso has bought land in Hudspeth County to obtain the rights to the water below the surface, while in East Texas, Henderson County farmers have lost a fight to stop Ozarka Spring Water from pumping 72,000 gallons a day from Roher Spring (see “Bottleneck,” State Wide, August 1995). Agricultural interests may fight back by asking the Legislature to create more underground water conservation districts that give local landowners the power to restrict big pumpers.

Meanwhile, the Texas Water Development Board’s three-year-old Trans-Texas plan calls for cities in Southeast and Central Texas to use interbasin transfers—taking water from reservoirs outside of their river basins—to meet their water needs. Corpus Christi has won approval for a pipeline that will bring water from Lake Texana, north of Port Lavaca. Austin’s northern suburbs in the Brazos River basin want to tap Lake Travis on the Colorado River. San Antonio is looking at Guadalupe River water. But the most ambitious plan is for Houston to bring in water from the immense Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Sabine River, where more than a million acre-feet of water a year are available for the taking. Less than 1 percent of that amount is used today. Nevertheless, downriver interests in Beaumont and Port Arthur are already fighting Houston’s plan; even in water-rich East Texas, residents of water-losing areas regard interbasin transfer as theft. Watch for opponents to back a new law requiring cities to practice strict conservation before transfers can be approved.

The worst crisis is in South Texas, and there is no good solution. The international reservoirs, Amistad and Falcon, enter 1996 at historically low levels. Mexico has had no irrigation water from the Rio Grande since May and has already told its farmers that there will be none this year. Interbasin transfer isn’t a viable option; Rio Grande Valley farmers couldn’t afford to pay the cost of transporting the water. There just isn’t enough water for cities and farmers, and in fights between city folk and country folk, the cities usually win.

Shutdown?

COULD PARTISAN POLITICS lead to a governmental shutdown in Texas, as it did in Washington, D.C.? You bet. Watch out for 1999, when a new comptroller will replace retiring Democrat John Sharp. In a budget standoff, the comptroller is a more important player than the governor: Under Texas’ pay-as-you-go system, the comptroller must certify that the Legislature’s budget falls within his estimate of available revenue. Suppose that a tightfisted Republican wins the race for comptroller, while the Legislature remains in Democratic hands. A lowball revenue estimate would force the Legislature to make painful cuts or pass a tax bill. Legislative leaders could not muster the four-fifths majority necessary to override the comptroller’s estimate. Neither side would budge, and when the fiscal year ended on August 31, the government would shut down. So who are the Republicans interested in running for the job in 1998? Agriculture commissioner Rick Perry would like a higher office; he enjoys a good fight, but he’s not the sort to carry it to Armageddon. State Senator David Sibley of Waco is another possibility, but confrontation is not his style. The one to watch is State Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, nicknamed Calamity Jane, whose zest for combat was apparent in her battles last session to derail affirmative action.

Board Games

OPPOSITION TO FEDERAL RULES—or, as critics have charged, pandering to the Religious Right—may not be the only reason why education commissioner Mike Moses rejected one grant aimed at AIDS prevention and declined to apply for another. The last thing Moses or his boss, Governor George W. Bush, needs is a big flap with the State Board of Education, which always seems to be more interested in the politics of education than the substance. If Moses had accepted the grant only to have the State Board oppose it—a high risk, given the board’s 9-6 Republican majority—the political damage would have been considerable. It’s far better to give the board as little raw meat as possible, which is one reason why Bush’s education reform plan last spring wisely took away most of the board’s authority.

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