Texas’ water and wastewater infrastructure in crisis

The following excerpt is from remarks delivered by Texas 2036 Senior Policy Advisor Jeremy Mazur to the House Natural Resources Committee on Aug. 24, 2022.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer comments on this interim charge relating to the condition of our state’s water infrastructure.

Frankly, I think the state of our water and wastewater infrastructure is challenged, at best. Judging from this year’s headlines about our infrastructure problems — a broken trunk line in Odessa, a 13-day boil water notice in Laredo and other communities enduring severe water restrictions due to the state of their infrastructure — this is a crisis that endangers economic development and community vitality across Texas.  

I’ll divide my comments today into two parts. The first part will summarize the limited data that we have regarding the condition of our state’s water infrastructure. The second part will describe the opportunities we have to address our state’s water infrastructure crisis.

Let’s start by talking about the shape of our water infrastructure.

Judging from the data, we can characterize our infrastructure as having significant water access needs. These include:

  • Aging, deteriorating systems;
  • Significant levels of water loss;
  • Noncompliance with health, safety and environmental protection requirements; and among other items; and,
  • A history of inadequate service.

There are two data sets that point to significant water access needs in Texas. The first is the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 report card for our water and wastewater infrastructure.  

According to ASCE, our drinking water infrastructure earns a C–.  

Meanwhile, our wastewater infrastructure rates poorly with a D.

These grades are reflective of systems’ age, deterioration, low operational maintenance and noncompliance with health and safety requirements.

The second data set we have regarding Texas’ water access needs are the subscriptions rates for the state’s clean and drinking water state revolving funds administered by the Texas Water Development Board. The current subscription rate for the state’s revolving funds equals $5.28 billion, well above the amount of funding the Board has available in a given year.  

That said, of Texas’ 10,000-plus water and wastewater operators, many are either unaware of these funding opportunities or decline to participate in the funding programs despite having problems with their systems.

This brings me to the second part of my comments: Where we can go from here.

Let’s start by talking about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA. Texas is slated to receive over $2 billion for our clean and drinking water state revolving funds.  

Texas has five years to commit the funds, and up to 49% can be used as grants or forgivable loans.

Both the bill and the EPA have encouraged the states to use the IIJA funds to address:

  • Meeting needs for small, rural and disadvantaged communities;
  • Providing technical assistance to rural communities;
  • Enhancing system’s resilience to extreme weather events and cyberattacks; and,
  • Encouraging greater regionalization of water projects.

I think IIJA is more than a simple funding opportunity, however. We can use IIJA as a building block and catalyst for establishing policy frameworks and financial strategies that address our state’s water access needs.  

Earlier this year Texas 2036 collaborated with the Water Finance Exchange and the Texas Water Foundation to host a series of stakeholder meetings on what Texas needs to do to maximize leverage of IIJA dollars. While we are working on a final report for your consideration, I think it’s fair to highlight some of the big ideas we’re looking at.

First, technical assistance providers can play an integral role in providing outreach to small, rural and disadvantaged communities. I know that Hank Habicht with the Water Finance Exchange is here to talk more about how technical assistance providers can work these communities — ones that have traditionally fallen through the cracks — to obtain financial assistance for their water systems. That said, it’s worth exploring ways to expand Texas’ technical assistance provider corps.

We also need to be innovative when it comes to regionalization and regional solutions.  Borrowing a line from someone else, our water sector may need to shrink in order to grow. Regional solutions offer several economies of scale needed to address water access needs. I know Robert Sheets with the Florida Governmental Utility Authority is here to talk about how his organization works to provide innovative regional solutions in Florida.

Another opportunity relates to planning. We know, generally, that we have significant water access needs. But data gaps exist regarding the magnitude of those needs. An opportunity may exist here to measure and evaluate the magnitude of our water access needs in order to strategically target our financial assistance resources.

Lastly, there’s the issue of state investment. While it’s true that IIJA provides Texas with a substantial sum over the next five years, that amount will not solve every problem. Towards that end, the Legislature may want to consider funding other state programs or even establish a new fund to address the water access needs within small, rural and disadvantaged communities.

Want to learn more about infrastructure in Texas? Read Mazur’s blog, “Extreme heat: The hotter days ahead.”