Drawing Straws

For more than fifty years, Texas has issued version after version of a comprehensive water plan. The newest edition includes $53 billion in projects, ranging from new reservoirs to treatment plants. So why is so much of the state always left high and dry?
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

In 1968 the 
Texas Water 
Development Board submitted 
a dire report to 
the Legislature 
warning 
that the state 
would run 
out of water 
by 1985. This prediction—an update to the first water plan, produced seven years earlier—was accompanied by a map purporting to show a solution to the alleged problem: a network of hundreds of miles of canals carrying water from the lower reaches of the Mississippi River to the farthest corners of South and West Texas, an engineering feat roughly equivalent in scope and expense to building the Panama Canal.

The state’s engineers could be forgiven for thinking big. The sixties were a time, difficult to remember today, when governments at all levels made enormous investments in public works. Texas was in the midst of a dam-building boom that had begun in the aftermath of the water shortages of the fifties, when the worst multiyear drought in state history threatened the drinking supply as never before. With the help of generous federal financing, Texas built 126 major reservoirs between 1950 and 1980, damming most of the available stream segments from the Rio Grande to the Sabine. As it turned out, we did have enough water in our rivers and aquifers after all, and the Mississippi was allowed to complete its journey from the pine forests of Minnesota to the marshlands of Louisiana without making any unscheduled stops in El Paso or Lubbock.

The tradition of reaching for the moon in the state water plan remains intact, however. The ninth incarnation of the report, called “Water for Texas,” was released last fall and lists more than five hundred projects worth a total of $53 billion, including 26 new reservoirs. Water planning is a decentralized process these days, with regional groups—including representatives from water utilities, river authorities, and agricultural and industrial interests, among others—meeting over an extended period of time to assess the needs of their particular part of the state. In truth, the final plan—a compilation of sixteen regional proposals—is essentially a wish list. Local authorities want their projects included in the water plan in order to be eligible for a low-interest loan backed by the State of Texas. Making the cut does not guarantee that a project will receive financing, but it has no chance if it doesn’t appear in the plan.

The six members of the Water Development Board are appointed by the governor and manage this process. But they do not actually vet the proposals before they submit the water plan to the Legislature, and lawmakers never vote on the document as a whole. The board basically cobbles the regional plans together, writes an introduction, and prints a doorstop-size book filled with water-themed photos.

So how does a proposal get approved? That happens when individual entities, such as the water utility in Waco, approach the Water Development Board for a loan for one of the projects that has been included in the plan. Even then, however, the board never really judges the quality or effectiveness of the proposal. If the utility can demonstrate its ability to repay the loan, then the money is provided. The simple fact that the regional planning group from the Waco area thought the proposal was a good idea is enough for the Water Development Board.

Rivers, of course, tend to flow through more than one planning region, and a number of major proposals in the plan call for pulling water out of one area for use in another. The board is supposed to resolve conflicts between regions before it finalizes the plan, but that doesn’t always happen: on page 48, for example, planners from the Dallas–Fort Worth area recommend damming the Sulphur River in northeast Texas to create the long-proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir and pump the water to their constituents. But that project is explicitly rejected on page 50 by the people who actually live near the river.

If you catch the authors of the various regional plans in a frank mood, they will tell you that most of the projects in the plan will never be completed anyway. The executive summary of the current plan reveals that only 65 of the roughly 500 initiatives listed in the previous version, compiled in 2007, have been implemented. That happens to be a marked improvement over the 21 projects in the 2002 plan that were put into action by 2007. The state water plan is to planning as chicken-fried steak is to steak.

Which is not to say that the plan doesn’t contain a lot of useful information or that you can’t learn a lot by reading it, if you know what to look for. Coming as it did on the heels of the 2011 drought, the driest twelve-month period in the history of the state, the 2012 plan’s warning—“In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises”—created headlines around the state. It also predicted that the number of people living here in 2060 would reach 46 million, nearly double today’s population. The message that Texas needs to invest in its water infrastructure is clear enough. Less obvious is what’s between the lines of the plan’s dozens of charts and graphs: a story about a Western state that has never really thought of itself as such, a rapidly urbanizing state that still devotes half its water to agriculture, and a resource-rich state that, even in the midst of a devastating drought, has huge, untapped water resources that happen to be in the wrong place. The very nature of the state water plan—directionless and balkanized—speaks volumes. Water, like power, is a zero-sum game, its distribution determined ultimately by the endless scramble of interests that underlies any policy debate over a finite resource. But regarding the biggest question of all—how we will pay for the projects we decide to pursue—the plan is conspicuously silent.

Among the half dozen policy recommendations in the 2012 plan is this seemingly banal blandishment:

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