Guest Column | July 6, 2015

The Long Journey Of An Energy-Water Bill In Texas

Kate Zerrenner

By Kate Zerrenner

Being an environmental advocate in Texas may seem like an uphill battle, and I make no bones about the fact it most certainly is. Plus, the Texas Legislature only meets for 140 days every other year, so the frenzy of activity during the Legislative Session (in local parlance, “The Lege”) is intense.

While my Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) colleagues may be able to make impressive strides in protecting their respective states against climate change, we in Texas must take pride in all of our legislative achievements, both big and not so much. It’s these small steps that add up to change in the right direction.

In addition to the many small steps that made up the 2015 Legislative Session, I say with great pride we also had a big win: On June 17, Governor Abbott signed Senate Bill (SB) 991 into law, requiring the General Land Office and the Texas Water Development Board to study the economic and geophysical potential of using solar and wind energy to desalinate brackish groundwater. From concept to law, SB 991 has involved the input and energy of numerous stakeholders — and it paid off.  

Advocating in “The Lege”

In the months before the 2015 Session, I met with our lobbyists (I am also registered as a lobbyist), as well as my EDF Texas Clean Energy team, to determine priorities and discuss which clean energy goals needed legislative support. And, because the majority of my advocacy efforts center around the energy-water nexus — the idea energy is used to secure, deliver, treat and distribute water, while water is used (and often degraded) to develop, process, and deliver energy — I decided to focus on legislation to have the state study the potential of solar and wind energy to desalinate brackish groundwater (which would become our victorious bill!).

This bill is important to Texas because, despite the inherent connection between the two sectors, energy and water planners routinely make decisions that impact one another without adequately understanding the scientific or policy complexities of the other sector. And traditional desalination is very energy-intensive, using water-intensive energy resources, so we are using water to make water. This makes no sense.

Focusing on the energy-water nexus, in some ways, makes my work easier. As a key advocacy point, I look at the water-saving benefits of clean energy, and the discussion instantly becomes more inclusive and personal. While energy and electricity can sometimes be difficult to picture, water is a tangible, visible part of everyone’s daily life.

My role in the legislative process

Once the idea for a bill is hatched, it has to be written, and a legislative member must agree to file it.

I worked with one of our lobbyists to draft the renewable energy desalination bill. Then, we strategized which members would be interested in filing the legislation — without a sponsor, a bill won’t get out of the gate.

Months earlier, I had spoken with a representative of El Paso Water Utilities who enthusiastically received the idea. I thought it would be great for a Senator from a city that knows the importance of finding water savings to tie these two pieces together. Fortunately, El Paso Senator Jose Rodriguez understood the bill’s importance, and was willing to file it.

The legislation marched on.

Throughout the Session, I worked with Senator Rodriguez’s staff on the bill — communicating with committee members to arrange a hearing, working through concerns from stakeholders, circulating talking points, preparing and presenting testimony, and helping foster it through both chambers. Fortunately, Representative Lyle Larson from San Antonio picked up the bill when it got to the House and, as mentioned, Governor Abbott recently signed it into law.

As always, finalizing one process means starting a new one. Now the work will begin to get the desalination study done, and figure out what the potential next steps are to making this clean energy-water solution a reality.

Most sessions, we’re not so lucky to get a bill through and, unfortunately, very few forward-thinking environmental-related bills made it into law during this session. In fact, this session, like most others, was mainly spent fighting a lot of bad environmental bills.

The energy-water work I do in Texas is exhilarating and rewarding — there are so many opportunities to make a difference in the world by finding new and exciting ways to address the nexus, if our legislators recognize its importance. Traditionally, conservation is conservative, and in Texas, it’s my job to keep reminding our decision makers of that fact.

From Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.