In addition to the intensifying discussions of water infrastructure funding at the Capitol, an even more basic conversation is also getting under way: whether to restructure the Texas Water Development Board.
The board, created in 1957, is overseen by six part-time board members, who serve on a volunteer basis after being appointed by the governor. But state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, wants to change the structure to three full-time members, also appointed by the governor.
Senate Bill 4, introduced by Fraser, would make those changes. According to a fiscal note for the bill, this would carry a price tag of nearly $1.3 million for expenses such as salaries and office space.
“I haven’t had a lot of luck communicating” with the six part-time directors, Fraser said at a committee hearing this week. The new structure, he said, would mirror that of the Public Utility Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. With full-time directors, “when there’s a question about something, I can pick up the phone and call,” Fraser said, and they can be at the Capitol in minutes.
Billy Bradford Jr., the current TWDB chairman, declined to comment on Fraser's suggestion. Merry Klonower, a TWDB spokeswoman, said that “his and our attorney's reading of statute is that we cannot comment on any sort of legislative issue.” A call to another board member, Edward Vaughan, was not returned.
Bradford testified Tuesday before the House Natural Resources Committee that "our agency is a strong agency," and said its leaders understood the importance of serving as a sort of water infrastructure bank for Texas. He is an accountant based in Brownsville, and described himself during the hearing as "one of the most conservative individuals you [could meet]." Other board members, who include bankers and ranchers, are similarly conservative, he said, and understood the importance of protecting the state's credit rating.
In addition to the governance provisions, SB 4 contains a much-discussed proposal to take $2 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund to use for water-supply projects. But the equivalent bills in the House, HB 11 and HB 4 from state Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, do not include the governance provisions. Sean Haynes, a spokesman for Ritter, said Ritter is following what is happening in the Senate with the provision but has no current plans to introduce it in the House.
A shakeup to the TWDB was not mentioned in its 2011 "sunset" report, a routine review of an agency's effectiveness. One of Fraser’s frustrations is that the water board, he says, has not prioritized the 562 water-supply projects it cites in the state’s water plan, which is published every five years, most recently last year.
“What I call the bureaucracy — the people at the water board — will not prioritize and put one project over another,” he said.
When asked previously about prioritization, the TWDB has responded by saying that conservation is a key criteria for water projects it helps to fund.
Kevin Ward, a former executive administrator for TWDB who is now with the Trinity River Authority, testified on Tuesday in support of Fraser's idea. "It may be the time at this point, with all the [water] programs and everything that has gone on, that the board would benefit from full-time board members that are appointed and that are salaried," Ward said. He added, "It gives an accountability that’s not necessarily there right now."
Fraser’s proposal would bar the current directors, as well as the current executive administrator, Melanie Callahan, from serving in the new TWDB set-up.
Asked why he wants to rule out the current directors, Fraser said, “My confidence of the board, the executive director and what’s going on over there is not good.”
Callahan, who became executive administrator in 2011, was named administrator of the year last year by a Texas state agency group.