Using Our “Good Cents” to Reduce Water Loss

By Ken Kramer, Water Resources Chair, Sierra Club-Lone Star Chapter

What if someone came to you and said that they would like you to loan them $100, but you knew that person usually lost or wasted at least $15 to $20 or more of each $100 they had? You probably would be reluctant to give them a loan without a commitment that they would stop wasting so much money and without a plan to follow through on that commitment, right?

That’s the approach the Texas Legislature took last year when legislators overwhelmingly passed HB 3605 – a bipartisan bill by Democratic State Rep. Lon Burnam (and others) and Republican State Senator Glen Hegar. Among its provisions, HB 3605 requires a retail public water utility receiving a loan from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to use a portion of that loan or any additional financial assistance from the agency to “mitigate” the utility’s water loss if the loss meets or exceeds a certain threshold. TWDB is required to adopt rules to set that threshold and to govern how state financial assistance is to be used to address a utility’s water loss.

Legislators were probably spurred to action by reports of billions of gallons of water lost each year through leaking pipes and water main breaks in water distribution systems in many parts of Texas – especially troubling when so much of the state has been experiencing major drought. For example, the Houston Chronicle reported in 2011 that at the height of that year’s drought the City of Houston lost more than 18 billion gallons of water, reaching a peak loss of about one-quarter of the water the City’s system pumped in September and October 2011.

But it’s not just Houston where “we have a problem.” TWDB reports that in 2010, according to water loss audits submitted by 1900 water utilities, there was a statewide “real” water loss of over 225 billion gallons of water, almost 14% of the total volume of water produced by those utilities that year (and not all utilities actually submitted the required audits). Granted that water loss is a complicated issue – some “apparent losses” of water reflect inaccurate data, and percentages are not always the best way to evaluate water loss – it is still staggering to think that we as taxpayers and ratepayers foot the bill for large water supply projects only to see billions of gallons of water wasted in leaking distribution systems.

But thanks to HB 3605 and other legislation Texans have the opportunity to make sure that state financial assistance to water utilities makes water loss reduction a top priority. In order for TWDB funds (our state’s “good cents”) to be used effectively, however, we need to make sure that HB 3605 is administered as intended. TWDB must set the water loss threshold at a level that captures a large number of utilities with significant water loss. Moreover TWDB needs to require a water utility meeting or exceeding that threshold to take steps to reduce real water loss, not just study their water losses further (although a valid water audit is a necessary first step to further action).

The Sierra Club has submitted comments to TWDB raising concerns about some of its staff’s proposals for implementing HB 3605. Although recognizing the good faith commitment by TWDB staff to addressing water loss, the Sierra Club is concerned, for example, that TWDB is considering a threshold that will only require a relatively small number of utilities to take action to avoid wasting water.

TWDB staff has been taking informal public comments in preparation for developing rules to implement HB 3605. Although the deadline for submitting informal comments has passed, there will be a 30-day public review and comment period after the draft rules are proposed (likely sometime in April). So if you’re concerned about water loss, you will have a chance to express your views then. For information about the development of the HB 3605 rules contact John Sutton, TWDB Municipal Water Conservation staff, at john.sutton@twdb.texas.gov.

Let’s make sure that TWDB shows the good sense to use its good cents to help water utilities curb their water loss.

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