Senate panel addresses water system reliability: Our 3 takeaways

Earlier this week, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, and Rural Affairs held an interim hearing on water system reliability. The hearing was comprehensive, with invited panels of expert witnesses on hand to discuss several of the key challenges and opportunities that lie before our water sector. These included the need for additional water supplies for our drought-prone state, desalination and produced water recycling, the state of our current water infrastructure, cybersecurity, and the need for expanding the state’s water workforce.

Here are a few of the key takeaways from the hearing’s panel discussions (time stamps are noted parenthetically for those wishing to view the highlighted testimony):

Water infrastructure supports economic development.

Several panelists discussed the direct relationship between reliable water supplies and continued economic growth and development. Wroe Jackson with the Texas Association of Manufacturers noted:

“Manufacturers also recognize that water is essential for job creation and economic growth. This is even more pronounced today considering the challenges to our nation’s security and the need to attract advanced technologies and critical manufacturing to Texas and the United States. The availability of water is directly tied to the potential for economic growth and the attractiveness of the state for new business investments.” (49:00)

Hector Rivero with the Texas Chemistry Council echoed the need for reliable water supplies:

“Water security is one of the reasons Texas became the leading chemical manufacturing state. It is also critical to the investment we have seen. Between 2010 and 2020, we have seen over $100 billion of new investment in our state within our sector. The success of us being able to attract new investment is going to be very dependent on water.” (56:00)

Water infrastructure projects are needed, but costly.

Representatives from Texas’ water sector identified multiple challenges to building and developing needed water supply projects. Sarah Kirkle with Texas Water Conservation Association observed:

“Regional districts and municipalities in high-growth areas face enormous pressures to meet skyrocketing water demand and support economic development. Ratepayers in high-growth areas of the state are reluctant to pay the cost of infrastructure to support growth that may not come for several years. Water supply projects are becoming more costly, challenging, and complex as the easiest and cheapest projects have already been developed.” (3:21:00)

Perry Fowler with Texas Water Infrastructure Network provided greater insights into the costs involved with building water infrastructure:

“Projects are becoming larger, more complex, and more expensive. Over the past few years, the owner community has experienced sticker shock for bids and project costs that have exceeded estimates. There’s several factors that have contributed to this situation, such as population growth, inflation, and supply chain challenges.” (3:26:00)

Texas needs a qualified water workforce to succeed.

Texas’ water infrastructure challenges go beyond the need to develop new water supplies for our drought-prone state and fixing aging, deteriorating water and wastewater systems. In the wake of recent cyberattacks on water systems in West Texas, the committee received timely testimony on the importance of cybersecurity in the water sector. This issue directly relates to another critical challenge facing Texas’ water industry — the need for a trained, qualified water workforce. With nearly a third of the current workforce on the verge of retirement, Sarah Schlessinger with Texas Water Foundation aptly observed:

“The connection I really want to draw for you today is that workforce challenges stretch beyond just having enough people to do the jobs. Each topic that you’ve heard today, whether it’s our supply projections, the deterioration of our infrastructure, data needs, and even in some cases, cybersecurity, have the common thread of having a workforce challenge.” (3:37:45)

Concluding Thoughts.

The Senate committee heard extensive testimony from different industry and state agency representatives and policy experts on a constellation of challenges to Texas’ water future. Many recognized the positive steps recently taken by the Legislature toward addressing the state’s long-term water infrastructure challenges through the creation of the Texas Water Fund and the approval of Proposition 6. While this was undoubtedly a critical, needed step forward toward improving the state’s water challenges, the testimony from this week underscored the need for additional action in the session ahead.

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