Near a small town called Junction, the Llano River is a catastrophe waiting to happen, since the major flooding in 2018, where the region’s water infrastructure was overwhelmed bringing silt, dirt, and debris, the exposed sewer lines under the river still haven’t been buried properly. According to the Texas Observer, when the next flood rips through the Hill Country, those lines could rupture, causing millions of gallons of raw sewage to flow into the Llano River and other nearby sources of drinking water.
That’s just one potential problem that Katherine Romans, the executive director of conservation group Hill Country Alliance, was hoping to stave off by securing a portion of federal stimulus money for water infrastructure projects. “These communities are on the brink of losing their drinking water supply or having catastrophic failures with wastewater lines,” she says.
The Biden initiative, called the American Rescue Plan Act, provided $1.9 trillion in no-strings-attached money for states to invest in infrastructure projects, public health, and other needs that might have fallen to wayside due to COVID-19- related budget shortfalls.
Texas received nearly $16 billion, but the Legislature declined to allocate any of those federal dollars to water infrastructure. A significant chunk of the ARPA funding—more than $10 billion—went towards the state’s unemployment fund, as well as hospital staffing and healthcare. But environmental groups such as the Sierra Club criticized other legislative decisions, such as allocating $3.8 billion for salaries of employees at the Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees prisons, and the Department of Public Safety, the umbrella agency for state troopers and border security personnel. Another $200 million went toward cybersecurity programs.
The state’s aging infrastructure leads to more than 1,000 boil water notices, warning residents that their water is unsafe to drink without boiling, across the state even in normal years, according to the ASCE report.
“About a third of our waterways are polluted with fecal bacteria. We have significant problems with droughts and floods, and there are some communities that don’t have access to running water,” says Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas. “Our water infrastructure is not as resilient as it needs to be, especially in the face of the climate crisis. There was a missed opportunity [in the last legislative session] to invest in solutions that could have made Texans less vulnerable to disruptions like we saw in February.”
On top of that, Texas’ population is among the fastest-growing in the nation, and demand for water is expected to skyrocket in coming decades. The cost of simply keeping up with growing needs and developing new, long-term water sources is massive: $63 billion over the next 50 years, according to the Texas Water Development Board, a state agency.
“We really were thinking, surely some part of the water infrastructure will get attention with this money,” Fuller says. “But neither [the] House or Senate has a dime for water.”
Advocates are hopeful that when Biden’s federal infrastructure spending bill is approved, it will provide the state another opportunity to tap into much-needed funding. The $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill, dubbed “Build Back Better,” is still being debated in Congress, and it’s too early to tell how much of that money will trickle down to Texas.