AUSTIN (AP) — Lawmakers took the first step Thursday to setting up a $2 billion fund to finance water projects across the state.

Members of the House Natural Resources Committee approved a plan that would take the money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund and create the State Water Infrastructure Fund of Texas, intended to leverage bond financing for new reservoirs, pipelines, desalination plants and conservation projects.

Texas needs to spend about $53 billion over the next 50 years to meet the water needs of the growing population, according to the State Water Development Board. About half of that needs to come from the state.

Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, says the fund could leverage $27 billion over time, and the bipartisan committee approved it unanimously.

“This legislation is about ensuring we have water resources available for our entire state, and that cuts across all partisan divides,” Ritter said. “We will continue to keep an open dialogue with all interested parties as we move along in the process.”

The Texas Senate is working on a similar measure and the two versions of the bill will need to be reconciled.

The Nature Conservancy, which creates preserves from private land, praised the measure, calling it “a monumental shift” for the state’s future. But a grass-roots group called Environment Texas said House Bill 4 did not dedicate enough money to conservation and would finance some potentially destructive projects.

“On the one hand, the bill would support a major boost in funding for water conservation and re-use. On the other, the bill directs 80 percent of the funding toward projects that can harm our rivers, streams and climate,” Luke Metzger, the group’s director, said.

The State Water Plan calls for 34 percent of future water needs to come from conservation and water re-use projects, but the bill sets aside only 20 percent of the funds for those purposes. Some worry the fund will become a political slush fund used to reward big businesses and political donors.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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