On Friday, Governor Rick Perry signed several water conservation bills intended to address the state’s drought and water supply problem, and also vetoed a major Ethics Commission sunset bill. The sunset bill, Senate Bill 219, would have required members of the Railroad Commission, the state authority charged with regulating the oil and gas industry, to resign before running for other political offices.
Last week, when the package of water conservation bills became law, 95 percent of the state was experiencing drought conditions. The water legislation signed on Friday will require water utilities to conduct annual water loss audits and notify customers of the results, and will also require the utilities to use part of their state assistance to repair leaks.
Leaking water mains can be a significant drain on Texas water resources, according to Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas. On average, Metzger said, over two percent of the water in municipal utility systems leaks out of broken mains, but the losses can be higher. In the summer of 2011, the city of Houston lost as much as 25 percent of its water to leaks. In a 2011 report, Environment Texas estimated that over 20 billion gallons of water could be saved annually by fixing municipal water leaks.
Another water bill signed into law, Senate Bill 198, will prevent homeowners’ associations from banning drought-resistant landscaping (sometimes referred to as ‘xeriscaping,’ the replacement of water-intensive lawn grasses with native landscaping and drought-resistant plants). According to Metzger, if all new residential developments were xeriscaped, by 2020, Texas would save 14 billion gallons of water annually. That is equivalent to the amount of water that 260,000 Texans use in a year.
“We applaud Governor Perry for signing this package of water conservation bills,” Metzger said in a statement. “They will help cut water waste and provide new tools for Texans to conserve water.”
Perry’s decision to veto the Ethics Commission sunset bill was more controversial. The legislation was passed by 97 percent of the House and 94 percent of the Senate. The Texas Energy Report, an energy news service, said the veto “erases the only surviving significant political ethics reform this session for the Railroad Commission.”
The commission has been criticized for close ties to the oil and gas industry it regulates.
Other Railroad Commission reform bills died during the 83rd Session, including a bill that would have prevented commissioners from accepting campaign contributions from parties that have contested cases before the Commission, and another bill that would have changed the regulatory agency’s name to the Texas Energy Resources Commission, which more accurately reflects its responsibilities. (The Railroad Commission no longer regulates railroads.)
In a statement, Perry described the Railroad Commission provision, and several other provisions in the sunset bill, as “added late in the legislative process without an open and honest discussion.” More than 30 amendments were attached to Senate Bill 219, most of which were unrelated to the ethics bill.
“The last-minute addition of a resign-to-run requirement for members of the Railroad Commission would change the structure of a constitutional agency without the consent of voters,” Perry said. “Any effort to amend a constitutional office should go to a vote of the people.”
Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the environmental group Public Citizen Texas, said that SB 219 was needed to better address state ethics violations. According to Smith, members of the Railroad Commission frequently seek higher office, and 81 to 93 percent of the total campaign donations made to them come from the oil and gas industry.
“When commissioners use their position to run for another office, they often go absent from the commission, and the demands of campaigning reduce their ability to do their job,” Smith said in a statement. “This portion of the legislation could have been used as a model for how to adequately reform the Railroad Commission, but instead the governor shot it down.”