Your guide to the 85th Texas Legislature’s water bills
Did you miss what happened with water conservation this legislative session? We’ve got you covered.
In the recently concluded regular session marked by heated debates over bathroom rights and sanctuary cities, water was not a priority issue for the Texas Legislature.
Still, numerous bills related to water management were introduced and considered. Among those were bills to advance water conservation. Although not all were able to make it through the legislative gauntlet, some did. The bills that passed are seen by conservation advocates as positive, if modest, steps forward.
Water Conservation Advisory Council recommendations
An important impetus to several of these bills was the December 2016 report to the Legislature by the state’s Water Conservation Advisory Council. For the first time, due to legislation passed in 2015, the Council’s biennial report included recommendations on statutory changes and funding for water conservation. Members of the Council, acting as individuals or as representatives of their respective advocacy groups, were successful in getting the recommended statutory changes introduced as bills or included in other bills.
The Legislature enacted three of those recommendations in the following bills:
HB 1573 (Rep Price/Sen Creighton)
- What does it say? Requires the person who conducts a water loss audit for a water utility to be trained in water loss auditing. Also requires the Texas Water Development Board to make that training available without charge from the agency’s website.
- What does this mean for Texas water? Advocates view this as a step forward in improving the accuracy of water audits, which should help utilities pinpoint ways in which they can curb water loss in their distribution systems.
HB 1648 (Rep Price/Sen Seliger)
- What does it say? Requires a retail public water utility serving 3,300 or more connections to designate a water conservation coordinator responsible for implementation of that utility’s water conservation plan.
- What does this mean for Texas water? This new requirement is seen as a way to help ensure that conservation plans are actually implemented, leading to more efficient use of existing water supplies.
SB 1511 (Sen Perry/Rep Price)
- What does it say? Includes a new requirement, as part of a broader bill on state and regional water planning, that a representative of the State Soil and Water Conservation Board serve as an ex office member of each of the state’s 16 regional water planning groups.
- What does this mean for Texas water? This change is considered important for better integration of that agency’s water conservation and management activities with water supply planning.
Unfortunately, one of the Water Conservation Advisory Council’s recommended statutory changes, which was embodied in HB 2240 (Rep Lucio), was not enacted. HB 2240 would have required certain recipients of state financial assistance for water projects to have enforceable “time-of-day” limits on outdoor watering (to prevent wasting water through evaporation during hot summer afternoons, for example).
- What happened? The bill was heard in House Natural Resources Committee and was favorably reported from the Committee. However, the bill was not set on the House Calendar for floor debate before the legislative session ended.
- So it didn’t pass – will we see this topic again? The bill did set the issue of outdoor landscape watering on the legislative agenda. Future legislative sessions will likely see a return of this topic.
Outdoor landscape watering
The subject of outdoor landscape watering actually arose in regard to a seemingly unrelated piece of legislation that passed. That bill was SB 1172 (Sen Perry/Rep Geren).
- What does it say? SB 1172 pre-empts “political subdivisions” (local governments such as counties and municipalities) from taking actions to regulate seeds, the planting of seeds, and the cultivation of plants grown from seeds.
- What happened? Some water providers raised concerns that pre-empting actions affecting plant cultivation might negate the mandatory limitations on outdoor landscape watering that are essential to many conservation or drought contingency plans. In response to those fears, the bill’s sponsors added an “escape clause” that allows a political subdivision to take any action otherwise prohibited by the new law in order to implement a water conservation or drought contingency plan, or a voluntary water management strategy from the state water plan or applicable regional water plan.
Water conservation odds ‘n ends
Water conservation was the focus of another bill that passed the Legislature after a previous version was vetoed in 2015. The bill was HB 965 (Rep Springer/Sen Perry).
- What does it say? HB 965 requires a state prison unit (a correctional facility operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice or under contract to TDCJ) that receives retail water or sewer service from a public utility to comply with water conservation measures adopted or implemented by the utility. There is a qualification to that for purposes of health and safety at the facility or if there is an impact on the cost of operating the facility.
- It was vetoed last session – so how did it pass this session? During the legislative session, this bill was negotiated with the Governor’s office to remove the objections to the previous session’s version of the legislation.
Other bills related to rainwater harvesting systems, setting per capita water use targets by region in regional water plans, and providing incentives for water-conserving landscapes or irrigation system controllers were introduced and – in some cases – progressed through the process but ultimately did not pass both houses. This legislation is likely to be seen in new bills in subsequent sessions.
In addition to legislation on specific conservation topics, the state appropriations bill that passed retained ongoing funding for the water conservation program activities at the Water Development Board. Although advocates of funding the state’s water conservation public awareness program – Water IQ, Know Your Water – were disappointed to see that the Legislature did not provide that money, the state’s strained revenue forecast had made that an unlikely prospect this biennium.
In general, however, the regular session of the 85th Texas Legislature saw progress in water conservation, including on issues identified in the Texas Water Conservation Scorecard released by the Texas Living Waters Project in 2016. Conservation continues to be part of the water discussion in Texas as the state seeks to address its water challenges.