By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The Texas House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would create a fund to finance water infrastructure projects in a state suffering from two years of widespread drought.
The House passed the bill along to the Senate on a vote of 146-2. The measure sets up a system for Texas to provide loans for projects such as reservoirs, wells and conservation efforts. The bill's author has a separate proposal to draw $2 billion from the state's rainy-day fund to help finance the loans.
"As Mother Nature has reminded us in the last several years, we cannot change the weather, but with sound science and far-sighted planning, we can conserve and develop supply to meet our future demands," Republican Representative Allan Ritter, the bill's author and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told his colleagues.
Many Texans, including the governor and the Texas Association of Business, support tapping the rainy day fund for water projects.
For the past two years, at least half of Texas has been in drought, and 85 percent of the state is in drought now, said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. In 2011, the state experienced its driest year on record, according to the National Weather Service. Cities such as San Angelo in West Texas have imposed emergency restrictions on water use.
The proposal is based on a 2012 state water plan that said that "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." The plan identified hundreds of needed projects that would cost $53 billion to design and construct in the next 50 years.
City water providers will need nearly $27 billion in financial assistance from the state to implement the projects, the plan said. The proposed fund would provide that amount over time with the help of the one-time withdrawal from the rainy-day fund along with $6 billion in general obligation bonds authorized by Texas voters for water in 2011.
The state's rainy-day fund, generated mostly from oil and gas production taxes, is projected to have $11.8 billion by the end of the 2014-2015 budget cycle, state comptroller Susan Combs said earlier this year.
Not all Texans believe the rainy-day fund is the place to go for funding water projects.
Arlene Wohlgemuth, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which advocates for limited government, said she does not think the money for water projects should come from the rainy-day fund.
"We agree that Texas needs greater and more reliable supplies of water to sustain its growth and industry," she said in a statement. But she objected to the proposal earmarking money for environmental education and conservation, "neither of which is guaranteed to expand the available supply of water in Texas."
Earlier this year, Republican Governor Rick Perry called on lawmakers to tap Texas' rainy-day fund for water and transportation projects, saying that "none of us can deny the need for these improvements."
"Whenever we're recruiting a business seeking to relocate or expand, a chief concern of theirs is ensuring there are adequate water, power and transportation systems for their needs," Perry said in prepared remarks for his state of the state address.
On the House floor on Wednesday, the remarks by the pastor of the day included this prayer: "Lord, give us rain."
(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by David Gregorio)