Texas voters overwhelmingly — 78% of them — approved the creation of a state water development fund in the Nov. 7 constitutional referendum. Rio GrandeValley officials should be among those first in line with project proposals that can utilize funding to help ease the strain of chronic dry conditions that have plagued the region for decades and cost millions in agricultural losses and forced cities to impose mandatory water conservation measures.
The Texas Water Fund, created with passage of Proposition 6, takes $1 billion from existing reserves to begin funding water projects. Qualifying projects include building new and upgrading old infrastructure; at least $250 million also is dedicated to finding new water sources and it also will replenish money taken from the state Rural Water Assistance Fund, which serves rural areas and communities with fewer than 150,000 residents.
Valley entities already are working on projects that would draw from all categories of allocations. After decades of almost exclusive reliance on the Rio Grande for our potable and irrigation water supplies, several Valley communities are looking for groundwater sources to augment that supply. A desalination plant already is operating in eastern Cameron County and could be expanded, although environmentalists have been fighting the effort, citing concerns that its runoff could affect the salinity, and ecosystems, where it is deposited.
Anything that helps reduce our dependence on the Rio Grande would help. Low river levels and high withdrawals, along with Mexico’s chronic tardiness in making water releases into the river as mandated by our two countries’ water-sharing treaty, have affected the quality of that water.
Some Valley areas might be able to establish systems like that developed in Brownsville, where resacas, or oxbow lakes, are connected to the water system. They serve double duty as retention ponds during dry periods and drainage runoff sites that help alleviate flooding when it rains.
Our agricultural water system needs much of the attention also. Although the Valley’s population is rising rapidly and is expected to continue doing so, 80% of the river’s water is still used for farming. Much of that water flows through unlined, uncovered canals that lose as much as 25% of the water through seepage and evaporation.
Our region’s water problems have long been known, but funding for major projects has been a problem. The economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, widespread inflation have made things even more difficult.
The Texas Water Fund, along with other possible sources such as the North American Development Bank, could help make long-needed improvements possible. The sooner local officials begin working on project ideas, along with the related grant and loan proposals, the better chance they might have at securing some of the funding — especially if they do so early, before competing proposals begin flowing in from other areas across the state.
Water is the lifeblood of every community and its residents. The more we work to help keep that water flowing, the better we can ensure the Valley’s continued growth and success.