Author Archives: kenwkramer

You Can’t Say They Don’t Care What You Think – Public Input on HB 4

Last November Texas voters overwhelming approved Proposition 6 – a proposed state constitutional amendment that created a new state water fund for water projects in the state water plan. Approval of “Prop 6” indirectly transferred $2 billion from the state’s “rainy day” fund into this new State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) to provide water for “non-rainy” days.

But just moving money around doesn’t create water. That’s why what’s happening now at the state’s Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is so important. When Texas legislators proposed Prop 6 to the voters in 2013 they also passed House Bill 4 (HB 4). HB 4 tasks TWDB with administering the SWIFT and sets out some of the basic provisions by which decisions are to be made about how SWIFT monies may be used to assist water projects and strategies.

Even HB 4 doesn’t answer all the questions, however, about how SWIFT is supposed to work and which water projects should have the highest priority for state financial assistance. TWDB has to adopt rules to provide more guidance to answer these questions. The Legislature directed TWDB to put those rules into effect by March 2015.

However, the over-achievers at TWDB don’t want to wait that long. TWDB has vowed to finalize the HB 4 rules by December of this year.

To achieve that ambitious goal the leadership at TWDB has been conducting an active outreach to Texans to seek suggestions for the new rules before the agency even prepares a draft for formal proposal. The TWDB Board held work sessions in Conroe, Lubbock, and Harlingen to hear directly from the public on how to implement HB 4. TWDB staff held three “open to anyone” stakeholder meetings in Austin in January,February, and March that featured wide ranging discussions of issues that need to be addressed in the HB 4 rules.

Among those issues were basic questions like what is a “conservation” project? HB 4 says that TWDB should use not less than 20% of SWIFT funds for conservation or reuse projects, but how do you define “conservation” – is it things like installing high-efficiency toilets and fixing leaking pipes, or does it include activities like rainwater harvesting, brush management, and aquifer storage & recovery (ASR)? [Answers from the environmental community: yes, yes, probably, maybe but it depends, and absolutely not, even if it’s a good thing to do!]

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has participated actively in this process and has submitted a detailed set of comments to TWDB on HB 4 implementation. The Club’s comments put the emphasis on conservation as the first priority for TWDB funding. But the Club notes that regional water planning groups and water utilities have to make conservation a priority also to realize the full potential of SWIFT to help Texans use water more efficiently. Sierra Club recommends that the Best Management Practices guides maintained by the state’s Water Conservation Advisory Council be a source of information about which practices most likely constitute “conservation.”

Others have weighed in with suggestions about HB 4 implementation as well. For example, Texas Tech Law School student John Eisler submitted to TWDB a thoughtful paper (“The Case for PACE”) about how Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs might be integrated with SWIFT financing to promote water conservation.

If you care about our state’s water future, there’s still time for you to make informal input on HB 4 and SWIFT to TWDB through an online portal on the agency website. The sooner you provide your comments, the better.

There will be another opportunity to comment later during the formal rulemaking process. TWDB staff is expected to take a draft set of HB 4 rules to the agency Board in June for approval to publish in the Texas Register for a 30-day public review and comment. Check the TWDB website for updates.

Just keep in mind – if we’re going to successfully navigate the journey to a secure water future for Texas, we need all oars in the water. Now is your chance to help paddle!

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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Water Council Safe- For Now.

I’m pleased to report that at the Sunset Advisory Commission meeting this morning the Chairman of the Commission, Senator Glenn Hegar, who had initially floated the idea of abolishing the state’s Water Conservation Advisory Council, announced after a brief discussion that he was withdrawing his suggestion “for now.” This announcement came after the Chairman and other members of the Commission had received numerous communications in opposition to the proposed elimination and after two members of the Sunset Commission, Rep. Larry Taylor and Sen. Robert Nichols, made supportive arguments at this morning’s meeting in favor of continuing the Water Conservation Advisory Council.

As a result of this morning’s actions the Sunset Advisory Commission report and decisions on the Texas Water Development Board (the primary state agency which the Council advises) will NOT recommend abolition of the Advisory Council. Indeed, ironically the Commission report includes a couple of recommendations which specifically call upon the Water Development Board and/or TCEQ to work with the Advisory Council on specific water conservation activities.

Thus, the Advisory Council is “safe” for the time being. But remember that no person’s “life, liberty or property” or valued Advisory Council is safe while the Legislature is in session. The regular session of the Texas Legislature begins January 11. We will need to carefully monitor the Legislature to be on guard for any attempts during the legislative session to eliminate the Council either through a specific bill introduced for that purpose or – more likely – a last minute amendment to a more general bill. Sen. Hegar indicated in withdrawing his proposal at the Sunset Commission meeting that he is still not convinced of the need for the Council, so he might make an effort to abolish the Council during the legislative session. Stay tuned.

In the meantime though, thanks to everyone who contacted members of the Sunset Advisory Commission on behalf of continuing the Water Conservation Advisory Council. Your support and your quick response is appreciated, especially at this busy time of the year, and it paid off!!

Ken Kramer

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Action Alert! Water Council in Danger!

Senator Glen Hegar has proposed the possibility of abolishing the Water Conservation Advisory Council. As your Lone Star Chapter Director, I implore you to please take action to ensure this doesn’t happen.

The possibility of abolishing the Water Conservation Advisory Council is a real travesty.

The Council, on which I serve as the Environmental Representative, is the one state body with the express mission of promoting and facilitating water conservation and measuring progress on achieving water conservation. The money expended for the work of the Council is a drop in the bucket compared to what the state spends to pursue water development projects, despite the fact that the state water plan anticipates that roughly one-fourth of the state’s water demands over the next 50 years need to be met through water conservation (and that figure is likely to rise in the next state water plan).

The Sunset Commission will decide on the proposal to abolish the Water Conservation Advisory Council as part of its decisions on recommendations for the Texas Water Development Board, and those decisions will come at TOMORROW’s (Thursday’s) meeting of the Sunset Commission, perhaps as early as tomorrow MORNING. Please act this afternoon or evening if you want to weigh in on this very important decision.

Proposed Script:

Hello, my name is ____ and I would like to leave a message for [elected official’s name]. I am calling because I support the continuation of the good work by the Water Conservation Advisory Council. It is a critical group that promotes water conservation. Thank you very much.

Sunset Commission Members and Email Addresses:

Senator Glenn Hegar, Jr. (Chair) – district18.hegar@senate.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0118
Senator Juan Hinojosa – juan.hinojosa@senate.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0120
Senator Joan Huffman – joan.huffman@senate.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0117
Senator Robert Nichols – robert.nichols@senate.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0103

Rep. Dennis Bonnen (Vice-chair) – dennis.bonnen@house.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0564
Rep. Rafael Anchia – rafael.anchia@house.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0746
Rep. Byron Cook – byron.cook@house.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0730
Rep. Linda Harper-Brown – linda.harper_brown@house.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0641
Rep. Larry Taylor – larry.taylor@house.state.tx.us – 1-512-463-0729

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Today is an Historic Day for the Texas Environment

Today Sierra Club has launched the “Texas Green Report” blog, bringing you breaking news and regular updates about key regional, state, and national environmental issues. The Texas Green Report will update you about the activities of the Club here in Texas — not only environmental advocacy but also opportunities to interact with other folks interested in enjoying the great outdoors.

The Sierra Club covers a wide range of issues in Texas, through our state-level Lone Star Chapter, national field organizers, and campaigns such as Beyond Coal.  The Lone Star Chapter was formed in 1965 and has an ambitious conservation agenda for Texas for 2010-2011.  Here are just a few examples of what we’re doing now.

Beyond Coal

The Lone Star Chapter, in partnership with the national Beyond Coal Campaign, is contesting air pollution permits for five proposed coal or petroleum coke plants in Texas that would add tens of thousands of tons of pollutants into the air we breathe and dramatically increase the greenhouse gases from Texas sources. We’re also working on cleaning up and phasing out existing coal plants and achieving a strong new coal ash rule.

Clean Energy Solutions

The Lone Star Chapter, working cooperatively with our partners, is promoting the adoption of more energy efficient building codes by Texas cities, pushing clean energy plans for municipally-owned electric utilities in Austin and San Antonio, and working for a specific state target for expansion of solar power. At the same time we are ramping up efforts to achieve stronger environmental controls over oil and natural gas production.

Green Transportation

The Lone Star Chapter is supporting the efforts to identify and obtain revenue sources that would fund rail projects and other mass transit options that are more energy efficient and environmentally sound than our traditional reliance on personal vehicles.

Safeguarding Communities: Clean Air & Water

The Lone Star Chapter consistently watchdogs air pollution problems in Texas.  We won a landmark settlement in a Clean Air Act lawsuit against Shell Oil in 2009 over so-called “upset” emissions of toxics and other air pollutants from its Deer Park refinery and petrochemical plant. This year the Chapter is pursuing similar litigation against Chevron and Exxon/Mobil.  In addition the Chapter has been the main group successfully fighting TCEQ’s attempts to lower clean water standards for hundreds of water bodies around the state.

A Texas Land & Wildlife Legacy

The Lone Star Chapter is supporting legislation that will be introduced in the U.S. Congress to designate wilderness areas in the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks in West Texas.  We are also continuing to crusade for strong funding of Texas state parks and nongame wildlife protection programs.

Water for People & the Environment

The Lone Star Chapter is a leader and active participant in the process underway to preserve freshwater inflows into Galveston Bay, Sabine Lake, Matagorda Bay, Nueces Bay, San Antonio Bay, and other estuary systems along the Texas coast.

In future posts you’ll hear more about these and other Sierra Club activities to explore, enjoy and protect the Texas environment, and you’ll learn more about the key environmental issues facing our state.

Welcome to the Texas Green Report!

Ken Kramer, Director, Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club

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