Legislative Update: Jockeying for Position in the Interim Session

As we progress through the interim session, a few trends are emerging. First, Hurricane Harvey has been the dominant talk in committee hearings thus far. Second, finger-pointing and blame are abundant. Third, there is a tremendous amount of jockeying for position behind the scenes as well as public disputes and turf wars.

Much has been written about hurricane Harvey, and I will not be recapping the storm, but do want to point out some salient and sobering facts before rolling into the fallout occasionally on display in testimony during committee hearings. After making landfall on late Friday, August 25, it moved slowly throughout the region, dumping rain as it hovered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA) declared Harvey the wettest hurricane in US history. Just let that sink in. After making landfall in Nueces and Aransas Counties, Harvey circled up northeast, meandered around the Houston area, and brought with it more rain in one storm than the US has ever recorded. Hurricane Harvey has been handed the dubious honor of being the worst rainstorm to ever befall a US city in modern history. And following Hurricane Harvey, the storm of record that brought us the wettest hurricane ever recorded, 17 million cubic yards of debris, and contaminated flood waters, came unprecedented blame and finger pointing. It is no surprise that the first handful of interim committee hearings focused on Harvey related issues and Harvey topics have trounced all other water issues. At the end of September, as interim charges were taking shape and committees were submitting issues to the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House, Speaker Joe Straus noted that “We know that this is not going to be a normal legislative interim. Hurricane Harvey has devastated our state and… the Legislature will have a substantial role to play in both the recovery process and in preparation for future storms.”

The Legislative Committees that deal with the majority of water quality bills include the House Environmental Regulations Committee, House Natural Resources Committee, Senate Agriculture, Water, and Rural Affairs Committee, and the Senate Natural Resources Committee. As of writing this article, the House Environmental Regulations Committee has met once on January 23 and discussed Harvey related issues. Committee Chair Joe Pickett quipped, there should be a “Hurricane Harvey Committee just to deal with all of the bills that will be filed.” The discussion and committee charges involving water quality center around the TCEQ’s response and cleanup after Harvey and if regulations adequately protected the public and environment. Debris management, character of source water, and agency response and public communication were all discussed. TCEQ Commissioner Brian Shaw spoke at length on the process of maintaining and restoring water and wastewater systems and debris management. The House Natural Affairs Committee has held one hearing on October 4, 2017 and has four to six more in their sites to discuss non-Harvey related charges. The first hearing was over six hours of sporadically heated testimony. Phrases like “benign neglect” and “failing to prepare if preparing to fail” were tossed around. The remaining committee hearings will likely take place throughout the spring and summer. Charges that will be discussed include;

  • Developing projects to control flooding
  • Mitigation efforts to reduce impact of flood events and funding strategies
  • Response of public entities,
  • Dam and reservoir operations response
  • The development of the State Flood Plan by the Texas Water Development Board
  • Science and data availability and needs related to flood risk and response
  • Best methods of providing state financial assistance for flood infrastructure needs
  • Collection and storage of flood flows
  • The role of voluntary land conservation efforts in preventing and mitigating flooding
  • Groundwater issues including:
    • coordination of aquifer practice 
    • brackish production zones 
    • water supply considerations with groundwater
    • data and science
    • emerging issues in groundwater and surface water interaction
  • Examine water markets in Texas
  • Examine public awareness campaigns regarding water
  • Results of decertification process (SB 573)
  • Water availability modeling
  • Hazards of abandoned wells
  • Investigate water developments opportunities with neighboring states and Mexico

The Senate Agriculture, Water, and Rural Committee has specific jurisdiction over water and has held two hearings focused on disaster response, recover, and mitigation in the wake of Harvey. The first was in October and the second is scheduled for January 29, 2018. Charges that the committee are grappling with and will continue to discuss include:

  • Study water infrastructure projects in State Water Plan and flood
  • Study ways to improve capacity and maintain structure of Addicks and Barker dams as well as transparency and figures of release data
  • Study feasibility of statewide real time flood warning system
  • Infrastructure security and energy restoration post weather events
  • Examine state mortgage requirements for notification of flood plains and flood pool areas
  • Examine regulation like occupational licenses and determine if detriment to rebuilding
  • Examine home equity lenders to offer forms of relief to homeowners affected by natural disasters
  • Infrastructure security and energy restoration post weather events
  • Examine state mortgage requirements for notification of flood plains and flood pool areas
  • Examine regulation like occupational licenses and determine if detriment to rebuilding
  • Examine home equity lenders to offer forms of relief to homeowners affected by natural disasters
  • Monitor funds being used, identify ways to maximize federal funds
  • Examine long term economic impact of Harvey on Texas and gulf coast region
  • Evaluate property taxes use in disaster recovery
  • Review state’s response focusing on public health efforts at the local and state level including repose related to vector control.

One positive theme emerging from Harvey related hearings seems to be a commitment and acknowledgement that we are going to see more of these storms and our elected officials and agency employees appear committed to learn from past experiences how to do better moving forward.

After the primary elections on March 6, Texas should have a better sense of how many key water legislators will be returning that can help carry this mantle forward. We know we will be losing 13 Representatives from the House, including our current Speaker Joe Straus, and one Senator as they will not be seeking reelection. There is also an observable battle between those in the Republican party as some follow an Empower Texas line while others are more traditionally pro-business. Governor Abbott is putting money and his weight of office in opposition to three Republican incumbents; Lyle Larson, Sarah Davis, and Wayne Faircloth. Key dates that will give us a better understanding of trends in the Republican party, and therefore trends and composition of many key water committees, include the following:

Primary Voting begins – March 6, 2018
General Election – November 6, 2018
Bill Pre-Filing Begins – November 13, 2018 (high priority bills filed)
1st Day of Regular Session – January 8, 2019
60-Day Bill Filing Deadline – March 8, 2019
Adjournment/Sine Die – May 27, 2019


On the national legislative front, we are eagerly awaiting the release of the Administration’s 2019 fiscal budget as well as the infrastructure investment package. Collectively, we will need to continue promote and elevate the criticality of funding water/wastewater infrastructure, and make certain that it is not lost in the generalized infrastructure discussion. An excellent opportunity to do this is coming up on April 17-18, at the National Water Policy Fly-in. WEAT and TACWA leaders will trek to DC with messages highlighting the need for robust infrastructure funding, affordability, sound policy, and the challenges in Texas utilities and communities. Go to www.waterweek.us for more information.

And be sure to save the date for WEAT/ TACWA’s biennial Water Horizon Conference, November 8 at the Long Center in Austin, Texas where we will discuss hot button issues in the regulatory and legislative arena in advance of the 86th legislative session. See ad on page 14 for more information.


The interim session has also been marked by rulewriting by the TCEQ. WEAT has been tracking a few rules as they march through the process as well as awaiting the adoption of revisions to the Texas Surface Water Quality Standards. WEAT and TACWA provided informal comments on Chapter 312 as the TCEQ is looking to clarify intent of existing requirements, improve readability, and remove inconsistancies. The agency received many comments back pertaining to buffer zone requirements. The overriding issues to many stakeholders include; buffer zone requirements, enforcement, and applicability, clarifying the prohibition of mixing grit and grease before land application, renaming sludge to biosolids, the applicability of rules relating to processing domestic septage before land application, and exploring adding a subchapter for domestic septage only.

The agency is also in the process of writing rules to comply with HB 3618, which repeals basin cycle permitting. Or the requirement that all TPDES permits within the same watershed have the same expiration date. After the repeal and adoption of new language, wastewater discharge permits will be issued for five years. The new language is schedule for Commissioners’ Agenda on March 7, and if approved, will be effective March 29 for all permits.

Stay tuned for updates and unpacking the federal regulatory challenges and changes in the next issue of Texas WET.

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