JOINT COMMITTEE GETS DROUGHT BRIEFING
|Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger (right) talks with Senator Glenn Hegar of Katy at a joint briefing on the drought before the Senate and House Natural Resources Committees.|
(AUSTIN) — With nearly all of the state still in drought conditions, members of a House and Senate committee held a joint hearing Tuesday to receive an update on how the drought is affecting the state. State ecologist John Nielsen-Gammon testified before a meeting of the House and Senate Natural Resources Committees, telling lawmakers that the current drought could soon be the second worst ever in the state of Texas, behind only the seven-year drought of record that happened in the 1950s.
Last year was better than 2011 said Nielsen-Gammon, but the state has only received about two-thirds of normal rainfall levels over the last two years. Reservoir levels are at their lowest point since 1990, and the forecast is for a slightly drier than normal 2013. The fact that the past two years are two of the three hottest ever hasn't helped; the hotter it is, the faster water evaporates and the drier the climate gets. North Texas from the High Plains to Wichita Falls, and south Texas from the coastal bend to Mexico are in historic drought conditions. Only a few counties in east Texas are excluded from the drought.
Water supply has been a key issue identified by state leadership in the first part of the session. Governor Rick Perry endorsed using money from the state's Rainy Day Fund to build new water infrastructure. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst said passing a state water plan is one of the Senate's top priorities. Heading up this issue on the Senate side will be Natural Resources Committee Chair Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, who has already filed four bills dealing with water supply and infrastructure in the state.
Also Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee considered a bill aimed at increasing oversight over a $300 million state cancer research fund. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) has come under fire for a number of conflicts of interests, including relationships between CPRIT officials and grant candidates, as well as three grants awarded improperly. Health and Human Services Committee Chair Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, author of the 2011 bill that created CPRIT, expressed her disappointment with misconduct at the agency. "They interpreted policies in ways I don't think any reasonable person would. And in doing so they let us all down," she said "We need to revamp our laws to prevent creative interpretations of what I believe was our clear legislative intent." Her bill, SB 149, seeks to increase oversight by restructuring the leadership staff, implementing a compliance program and ensuring that every grant application undergoes rigorous peer review. It includes provisions to curb relationships between CPRIT employees and grantees, would require public reporting of CPRIT financial information, and clarifies legislative intent to prevent future misinterpretations. The committee left that bill pending and will consider it for passage at a future hearing.
The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, February 6 at 11 a.m.