AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - To get a sense of the pressure Carlos Rubinstein faces five months into his job as chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, consider this: Not only has he had meetings with dozens of underwriters hoping for a hand in the billions of dollars under his control and fielded questions from civic groups, he also has found himself getting grilled by a 9-year-old girl:
“I have heard you have the power to help Texas better conserve the water supply,” wrote Delia, a girl from Austin’s Tarrytown area, in large block letters. “Please set aside money to help us figure out how to better conserve and use our water. Water is important because it keeps us alive.”
The letter sits in a tray on Rubinstein’s desk, the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1n9qisn) reported. Behind the desk is a window with a wide view of the Capitol, whose seasonal occupants last spring proposed the $2 billion kitty over which Rubinstein now presides for new water infrastructure.
As the state pushes forward with the water work, it will be chiefly up to Rubinstein, a man passionate - even geeky - about water, to satisfy the state’s myriad interests, including cities, industry, farmers and little girls like Delia.
For decades the Water Development Board had been an obscure, sleepy state agency, its salad days long gone. The Legislature created the agency - a bank, really - in 1957, as the state crept out of the worst drought on the books and readied itself for a massive reservoir and infrastructure building effort.
With no new large water reservoirs built in Texas since the 1990s, the board had the feel of an overstuffed binder collecting dust on a forgotten shelf. (The board continues to loan money to local governments for modest water supply projects, especially in impoverished communities, and to pay for water-related research.) In 2013, lawmakers essentially dusted that binder off.
The current long drought is driving legislators to contemplate the kind of reservoir and pipeline binge not seen for a half-century.
Anxious to have greater control over agency purse strings after a scandal involving the management of cancer research money controlled by another small state agency, lawmakers in 2013 fired the water agency's volunteer board and executive director and put before voters a constitutional amendment - overwhelmingly passed in November - to transfer $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund into a revolving loan fund to front the money for local entities to pay for the new water projects.
Rubinstein was born in Mexico City and moved to Brownsville with his family, who were in the import-export business, at the age of 10. After college, he went to work for the city of Brownsville, eventually advancing his way to city manager. In 2000, he joined the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. While managing the doling out of water along the Rio Grande, he gained fame in water circles as the state’s point man on negotiations with Mexico on water issues, succeeding in getting that nation to repay its water debt. Then, after serving as deputy executive director at the TCEQ, he was appointed one of its commissioners in 2009.
The role of water czar comes to him naturally. As a seasoned bureaucrat, he has developed a taste for the nitty-gritty of legislative language. He talks about statutes the way some people talk about the weather.
“He’s not a huge power broker kind of guy,” says his friend Carole Baker, who runs the Texas Water Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at educating the public about water issues. “He’s someone who has worked in the trenches, and he’s extremely capable. He works more on behalf of the state than himself. I don’t look at him as a political person. He’s just been sent in to do a job.”
In an episode that suggests his mettle, in 2011, Rubinstein was the sole member of the three-commissioner TCEQ to vote against a controversial Houston-area industrial injection well whose investors included donors to Perry’s campaign. The other commissioners approved the well despite the objections of local officials, the Texas Railroad Commission and an administrative law judge who recommended denying the permit because it might pollute groundwater.
The investors included Texas A&M; University System Regent Phil Adams and former Dallas Cowboys football coach Barry Switzer. Adams donated nearly $300,000 to Perry’s state campaign fund, and Switzer had raised more than $57,000 for Perry’s 2010 campaign.
“We trust that the decision was made based on the best available science and in accordance with current procedural rules and statutes,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in 2011.