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August 10, 2006     (512) 463-0300

NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE CONSIDERS THE FUTURE OF AIR AND WATER QUALITY IN HOUSTON

As part of their charge for the 79th Session Interim, the Senate Natural Resources Committee held two hearings in Houston on the state of water resources and air quality in Texas.

Tuesday, August 8, the committee heard testimony on the water plans for Texas from local and regional authorities. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Commissioner Larry Soward testified that the state is at a crossroads in dealing with water supply. Texas' population is set to double by 2050, and the state is in the middle of a historic drought that is straining water supply and infrastructure. Soward said that the state should increase the cost of water when granting water rights, as water in Texas costs about 22 cents per acre/foot. A modest increase in price for water could lead to significant revenue gains that could go toward new water infrastructure.

The committee also considered other problems with state and local water policy. During the last regular session, a sweeping water plan in the form of Senate Bill 3, aimed at streamlining state water policy, did not garner approval, and witnesses told the committee Texas must continue to work toward a statewide plan. They said while the work toward SB 3 led to more accurate demand and supply numbers, the state must still improve the water permitting process, as well as facilitate water rights transfers between water poor, and water-rich regions.

On Wednesday, the Natural Resources Committee heard testimony regarding air quality, especially in the state's two largest metropolitan regions, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that all states meet certain air purity standards or face a loss of highway and construction funding. Texas must meet these standards by 2010.

TCEQ Chief Engineer David Schanbacher briefed the committee on the progress of two of the major projects directed at accomplishing these goals, the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) and the Texas Environmental Research Consortium. Schanbacher said that while TERP has led to significant reductions in harmful emissions from mobile- and point-source pollution, the state must continue to work toward reduction if it is to meet EPA standards.

Witnesses highlighted the need for improved enforcement of emissions standards for cars and light trucks, as well as encouraging drivers to keep vehicles up to code. Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher testified that her region is stepping up efforts to find violators using counterfeit inspection stickers to avoid emission standards, including better training and funding for county constables.

Other witnesses testified regarding the state's Low Income Vehicle Repair Assistance, Retrofit, and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program (LIRAP). This program offers assistance to low-income drivers in repairing vehicles in order to get them up to code, offering as much as $600 toward repairs. LIRAP also seeks to get older, higher-polluting cars off the road by offering a grant to drivers who want to trade in their car for a new, more efficient vehicle. The program was criticized regarding the amount of that grant, which is only $1000. Witnesses said the state must increase these grants to an amount that will help low-income drivers find a new car at a reasonable price, but not offer an incentive to intentionally allow a car to fall out of code in order to defraud the state.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

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