DALLAS – Concerns about the availability of future water supplies and the need for new infrastructure will take center stage in Houston at The Bond Buyer’s Financing Municipal Utilities Symposium Thursday and Friday.
Water worries are particularly acute in Texas, where the Texas Water Development Board this week announced that 98.5% of the state is in drought, with 13% in exceptional drought, the worst level.
In Austin, the Texas legislature is working to salvage a $2 billion bond program for water infrastructure that would tap the state’s $11.8 billion rainy day fund.
The water bond program would be administered by the TWDB, which estimates that the state will need an additional $53 billion to provide sufficient water supplies for a population expected to double in the next 50 years.
The drought issue is closely intertwined with electric power, since the source of energy and its production both rely heavily on adequate supplies of water. Energy will be another focus at the Houston symposium. Oil and gas “fracking” operations in Texas and other states use large amounts of water while most electricity generation relies on water for cooling.
Proposed coal-fired power plants near Sweetwater in West Texas and Bay City, southwest of Houston, have drawn opposition from farmers, ranchers and nearby communities that fear their impact on their own water supplies.
TWDB estimates that a statewide drought as long and severe as the 1950s “drought of record” could cost Texas nearly $12 billion in lost income, rising to nearly $116 billion in 2060, the end of the board’s 50-year planning horizon.
The U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted 83-14 Wednesday to approve the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 authorizing federal water program spending and including a pilot program that would offer low-interest loans and loan guarantees for water infrastructure projects.
The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA would be authorized at $250 million over five years. It’s modeled on the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program that provides loans and loan guarantees for highway programs.
In Austin, Gov. Rick Perry is working toward a deal that would save the $2 billion water bond program that had appeared dead in the House. Lawmakers have until May 27, the last day of the current legislative session.
For local water utilities, the need for solutions is now. At the El Paso Water Utilities, officials are developing pipelines and a desalination plant funded in part by federal money. On Tuesday, the EPWU held a press event at the dry bed of the Rio Grande as officials called for stronger conservation amid worsening drought.
El Paso typically gets half of its water supply from the Rio Grande, which is impounded upstream at the Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico. But the water at Elephant Butte is at historically low levels. Water will not be released into the river until June 1, said Christina Montoya, EPWU vice president.
“Last year, we started making preparations by drilling new wells, and we also made sure to optimize our existing wells, making repairs and making sure they perform efficiently,” Montoya said. The utility is adding 10 wells to its existing 150 and is connecting to the treatment plant via pipelines.
EPWU will be featured as a spotlight issuer at The Bond Buyer symposium Thursday, with a presentation from chief financial officer Marcela Navarette.