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TECQ

We also have to worry about water

Hopefully not for too much longer.

On Friday, as the ice melted and lights flickered back on in homes and businesses across the state, Texans were melting snow into their toilet tanks and mopping up water from busted pipes.

The state’s power outage disaster had firmly transitioned into a water crisis.

The state’s power grid operators declared the worst is behind us, as most Texans have their power restored and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is no longer calling for forced outages. They said residents can resume normal consumption of electricity.

But about half of the states’ population is still battling water infrastructure problems because of the cold weather — made worse as temperatures ticked up above freezing leading to pipes and water lines bursting.

For Texans who do have water, millions are being told to boil it before consuming in cities across the state including Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Arlington, Galveston and Corpus Christi.

The state is accelerating efforts to restore water to Texans, Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Friday press conference. The state will connect overloaded local facilities with other labs to expedite clean-water testing efforts and grow the number of plumbers available to fix broken pipes, he said.

More than 1,180 public water systems in 160 counties reported disruptions from the winter storms, affecting 14.6 million people as of Friday morning, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Reduced water pressure — due to pump failures and increased demand from burst pipes and millions of people dripping their faucets for days on end — is the root of the problem for many of these infrastructure problems. Reduced water pressure can lead to harmful bacteria growing in the water. Other times, power outages have prevented treatment centers from properly treating water.

“When the pressure drops significantly you can’t maintain water quality standards,” Texas Water Foundation CEO Sarah Rountree Schlessinger said. “You got to have that energy come back online … then, allow for sufficient time for pressurization, and then for water quality testing to occur.”

Water pressure improved noticeably at our house from Friday to Saturday – it feels pretty close to normal now, though I can’t say for certain. There’s likely a lot of stress on the system as well, as people who are newly back in their powered homes are showering and washing dishes and laundry. It’s hard to resist, but do try to keep your usage modest for the next few days.

Of course, if your pipes are busted, you’re not using any water anyway.

City and county leaders on Friday said tens of thousands of area residents and business owners suffered burst water pipes or other damage from the winter storm this week, with the resulting property damage likely costing tens of millions of dollars.

The Harris County engineer’s office estimated 55,000 homes in unincorporated portions of the county likely have pipe damage. The city reported it has received some 4,900 calls to its 311 system for water breaks, a figure officials said likely pales in comparison to the number of residents who have not reported the damage to City Hall.

“That number is higher, probably much higher,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding that many people — including himself and some City Council members — shut off their water without calling the city. “There are still breaks that exist in our city that have yet to be reported, and the water is still running.”

With power restored to nearly all residents, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the most serious problems remain access to water and food.

“We’ve been in touch with the major grocery stores, and they said the supply chains will catch up by this weekend,” Hidalgo said. “The issue, of course, is hoarding. So, I’ve been asking folks to only purchase what they need for their own families.”

Turner has said the city will work with the county to launch a fund to help residents confront the costs of repairing their pipes and the damage water has done to their homes, though details on that fund have not been announced yet.

The major disaster declaration may help with that as well. We dealt with busted pipes on Thursday – we were fortunate that our regular plumber put his regular customers at the top of his priority list, and that meant he could deal with us. We had something like nine cracked pipes, all under the house, all now replaced. Not cheap, but we’re in a position to be able to afford it. (The total amount was less than the deductible on our homeowners insurance, so it was all on us to pay, in case you were wondering.) Lots of people are going to need help with their repairs, and they should get it with as little resistance or red tape as possible.

We should also remember, it can always be worse.

Residents of San Angelo, a West Texas city in the Concho Valley, have gone days without safe drinking water after city officials discovered industrial chemicals contaminated the water system.

The crisis — which stretches into at least its fifth day Friday — in the city of 101,000 people has left residents frustrated and scared after the city told them Monday night to cease all uses of water other than flushing their toilets. They were also told that first boiling the water before use would not make it usable and, instead, only more dangerous.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found the water, which smelled like chemicals or mothballs, is contaminated with benzene, acetone, naphthalene and other chemicals consistent with industrial production.

That story is from Monday, before we all froze solid. I’m sure the frigid weather, and the fact that you can’t fix water than has benzene in it by boiling it, has made the situation that much worse. I don’t know how things are today in San Angelo, but I sure hope those folks are getting the help they need.

Three bad bills

Bad bill #1:

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has been trying for months to pass legislation that would make it tougher for local entities to bring in more tax revenue by taking advantage of rising property values.

On Thursday, he managed to add language to a bill from state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, that could do just that, though not as severely as many local officials had feared.

Creighton’s bill, http://txlege.texastribune.org/84/bills/SB1760/, aims to make the administration of local property taxes more transparent with provisions such as directing the comptroller to publish a ranking of property tax rates statewide and requiring local entities to justify future tax increases on election notices and ballots.

Under Bettencourt’s amendment, 60 percent of the members of a city, county, school district or other local entity’s governing body would have to approve a property tax rate that brings in more revenue from existing homes and businesses than was collected in the previous year — a metric known as “the effective tax rate.” Currently, approval of a simple majority of a local governing board is all that is needed.

[…]

The Texas Municipal League, which counts more than 1,000 Texas cities among its members, first heard rumors about Bettencourt’s amendment Thursday morning, and began lobbying senators against it, fearing that it was an attempt to pass his revenue cap bill, according to to executive director Bennett Sandlin.

The actual amendment language could pose problems for some local entities, Sandlin said. But he stopped short of promising that the municipal league would work to kill it in the House.

“We’re still digesting,” Sandlin said. “It’s not a full-blown revenue cap so I don’t want to say we’re going to go to the mat on this.”

Sandlin argued that the amendment should have been vetted more thoroughly by the Senate.

“It was never in a bill and it never had a hearing,” Sandlin said.

Bad bill #2:

Legislation that would upend the legal process in Texas to allow the attorney general to have a three-judge panel to decide cases with statewide implications, rather than a single district judge, was approved Thursday by the state Senate after a lengthy and pitched debate.

Senate Bill 455 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would allow the attorney general to request the Texas Supreme Court’s chief justice to form a panel of judges to hear any cases filed in a district court in which the state is a defendant.

School finance and redistricting were two examples cited as among the types of cases that could be covered by the change, which supporters argued was needed to keep one county from steering the outcome of important cases that affects all of Texas.

“When one county is given that much control, it effectively disenfranchises voters of the other 253 counties who did not vote for that district court judge,” Creighton said. “We’ve seen a 40-year saga in and out of court on school finance. We have one trial court that hears that case and it is reviewed on appeal by the Supreme Court based on parameters and decisions set by that court. It would be better representation across the state to allow a process where other judges are involved in decisions of that magnitude.”

[…]

Under the bill, a single state district judge still could hear cases with statewide impact, unless the attorney general requested a three-judge panel. A state district judge and an appellate judge from elsewhere in Texas would join the original district judge in hearing the case.

“It sounds totally unnecessary, since those cases go directly on appeal to the Supreme Court that is 100 percent Republican,” said F. Scott McCown, a University of Texas law professor and former Austin district judge who heard school finance cases between 1990 and 2002. “It will be more costly and slower to have three judges on a trial. Three-judge panels are very awkward and inefficient.”

And if lawmakers think they might get a different outcome with a three-judge panel, McCown and other legal experts noted that the Texas Supreme Court has ruled against the state in five of the six of the school-finance cases since 1984.

Bad bill #3:

Texas is poised to widen its welcome mat to a wide range of industries.

Claiming that the state’s bureaucracy is shooing away businesses, House lawmakers on Thursday night gave initial approval to a bill aiming to quicken regulators’ pace of cranking out permits for major industrial projects – by limiting public scrutiny.

Over the objections of consumer groups and environmentalists, the chamber tentatively passed Senate Bill 709, which would scale back contested-case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution emissions.

Texas’ current bureaucracy puts the state at a “serious disadvantage” compared to its neighbors, said Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, adding that her legislation would give businesses more certainty.

Already approved by the Senate, the measure sailed through the House by a 92-50 margin after Democrats put up a roughly 90-minute fight, arguing that lawmakers were poised to squelch the voices of their constituents.

“This bill is very, very serious,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who saw his and other proposed amendments to soften the bill shot down. “You will have to explain to your constituents why you have taken away their right, why you have enhanced their burden and why you have stripped them of protection.”

Contested case hearings resemble a trial in which companies and their critics present evidence and testimony in front of an administrative law judge in the hopes of swaying regulators, who have the final say. For particularly complicated – and controversial – industrial projects, the process can yield information that the short-staffed TCEQ did not foresee.

Protesters rarely convince regulators or a company to completely withdraw a permit application, but veterans of the process say they often win concessions that shrink a plant or landfill’s effects on the community.

[…]

Less than 1 percent of permit applications ever draw a contested-case hearing.

Of 1,960 waste, water and air permit applications filed with TCEQ last year, for instance, the commission granted hearings to just 10, according to an analysis of public records by the advocacy group Public Citizen. The agency confirmed those numbers to The Texas Tribune.

The analysis also found that Texas typically processes air quality permits faster than Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Colorado and even Louisiana.

I grouped these three bills together because they neatly encapsulate two of the main Republican priorities for this session: Partisan advantage and stomping on local control. Bettencourt’s amendment to Creighton’s bill, which as the story notes is at least not his infamous revenue cap bill, is both an ideological obsession on his part, and a nuisance bit of effluvia that in the end may not make much difference. The city of Houston hasn’t raised its property tax rate in my memory; thanks to its own stupid revenue cap, it may never be able to do so again. HISD raised its lower-than-most property tax rate in 2014 as it said it would as part of the 2012 bond referendum. That passed on a 7-1 vote, so it would have easily cleared the higher bar. As far as counties go, remember that they all have four-member Commissioners Courts plus a County Judge. To pass anything requires either a 3-2 or 3-1 vote depending on whether the Judge votes or not, and all of those are 60% or better. I’m sure this will have some effect somewhere, but here in Houston? Probably not much.

The contested case hearing bill, like the anti-fracking-ban bill, is an example of what happens when the state fails to uphold its responsibilities to the people. Just as there would be no demand in cities to regulate fracking within their limits if the Railroad Commission wasn’t such an industry lapdog, neither would there be much demand for contested case hearings if the TCEQ were worth a damn. The folks in Denton and elsewhere have done what they have done because it was the only viable option available to them. (Well, at least until enough people statewide realize that they need better and more responsive government at that level.) Now that option has been taken away, and this one may be as well. Better hope you don’t live anywhere close to a site that may someday be used for industrial purposes.

(You didn’t think I’d let these bills go by without asking once again what the Mayoral candidates think of them, did you? At least we know what Sylvester Turner thinks of the contested case bill. The Lege and TxDOT are going to have a bigger effect on the next Mayor’s tenure than any of them seem to realize right now.)

Finally, the make-school-finance-lawsuits-more-complicated bill – the story also mention redistricting litigation, but that’s usually done in federal court, and I don’t know that the state has any authority there – is another nuisance partisan bill that like Bettencourt’s amendment may wind up having little practical effect. I mean, if the Supreme Court upholds Judge Dietz’s latest ruling, can anyone claim that politics was a factor? I would also note that it is entirely within the Legislature’s power to ensure that there are no more school finance lawsuits ever again. All they have to do is a better job funding the schools.