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Texans approved billions for water and broadband infrastructure. Now what?

Tom Bailey flushes out a water line in Zavalla on April 10, 2023. Like many small towns, Zavalla has struggled to keep up with repairs to its water infrastructure.
Mark Felix
The Texas Tribune
Tom Bailey flushes out a water line in Zavalla on April 10, 2023. Like many small towns, Zavalla has struggled to keep up with repairs to its water infrastructure.

LUBBOCK — Texas communities will soon receive billions of dollars to improve their water infrastructure and expand broadband access after voters overwhelmingly approved two constitutional amendments this week — a historic investment that aims to help the state’s smaller and cash-strapped municipalities.

State lawmakers asked voters to approve dedicated funding for water and broadband using tax dollars already collected. Voters said yes, with 78% approving the water fund and 69% approving the broadband proposal, according to unofficial results Wednesday morning.

Voters also approved similar proposals for university research and energy infrastructure. The water and broadband issues will likely yield the greatest boon for rural Texas, supporters of the initiatives say. Now the work turns to figuring out how those communities will apply for and receive the money.

The Texas Water Fund was officially created with voter approval for Proposition 6, allocating $1 billion to projects that address a range of issues from water loss and quality to acquiring new water sources, and Texas’ deteriorating pipes. It’s the largest investment in water infrastructure by state lawmakers since 2013.

The fund will be administered by the Texas Water Development Board. At least $250 million of the fund will go toward projects that create new sources of water supply. According to the board, the next step is preparing rules for the financial assistance programs.

Water advocates are hopeful that voters approving such a significant amount for water improvements will open the door for more funding to address the ongoing issues.

“The $1 billion opens the door to a bigger conversation that needs to happen,” said Jeremy Mazur, senior policy adviser for Texas 2036.

The approval will be a win for rural communities that have previously been left in the dark when it comes to funding opportunities. The legislation spells out how the money is to be used and directs the water board to ensure that a portion of the money goes to rural areas and municipalities with less than 150,000 residents.

“This is going to be the first chance that a lot of these smaller, more rural communities have had in a while to access solid funding at favorable, affordable rates,” said Perry Fowler, executive director of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network.

The water problems in Texas are statewide but are especially prevalent in the rural towns where the tax base can’t keep up with costly repairs or consistent maintenance.

Voters also approved the creation of the Broadband Infrastructure Fund, which allocates $1.5 billion for expanded broadband development and finance 911 services. This is the most money invested by state lawmakers toward the issue.

The money could go a long way for telecommunications providers that are approved for infrastructure projects, particularly in rural communities that have little to no broadband availability. A map from the state broadband office shows disparities across the state.

“There are lots of areas of the state that don’t have broadband services,” said Walt Baum, president of the Texas Cable Association. “And, there are areas in the state where they do, but there are price or other barriers. So there will be money in these programs to take care of both of those audiences.”

The fund will also give the state leverage when it comes to matching federal dollars from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program. Texas was awarded$3.3 billion from the program — the most of any state — as part of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act passed in 2021, which both Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz voted against.

Advocates were concerned about the letter of credit required for federal funding, but that has changed. Under a proposed rule, applicants would have been required to have a line of credit from a major bank and put up 25% of the project costs ahead of time, which would not have been feasible for rural communications providers.

Texas Rural Funders and other national partners led efforts to collect signatures asking the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for alternatives, and they have updated guidance to make funding more accessible for smaller and rural providers. Now, applicants can receive letters of credit from credit unions or use performance bonds instead, among other changes.

While it may take time for Texans to see change with federal funding, they could see it sooner with the money approved in Proposition 8.

“The funding from Prop 8 will be available much sooner and can be used for a variety of broadband needs,” said Kelty Garbee, executive director for Texas Rural Funders. “Which could start quickly in early 2024.”

From The Texas Tribune