The Sunset Commission met on April 27 to hear public testimony on the following: Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, Texas Invasive Species Coordinating Committee, Texas Water Development Board, State Water Implementation Fund for Texas Advisory Committee, and the San Antonio River Authority. An archive of the hearing can be found here.

This report is intended to give you an overview and highlight of the discussions on the various topics taken up. It is not a verbatim transcript of the discussions but is based upon what was audible or understandable to the observer and the desire to get details out as quickly as possible with few errors or omissions.

 

Members Present: Chair Sen. Schwertner, Vice-Chair Rep. Holland, Sen. Perry, Sen. Johnson, Sen. Paxton, Sen. Springer, Rep. Canales, Rep. Clardy, Rep. Goldman, and Rep. K. Bell; along with Public Members Jim Lee and Jeff Austin III

 

Opening Comments

  • Chair Schwertner – Written comments for these agencies will close Monday May 2
  • Members provide opening comments and introduce their staff

 

Jennifer Jones, Executive Director Sunset Staff

  • Introduces Sunset staff members and overviews the Sunset process; reviews can last from four to eight months depending on the size of the agency
  • Are in the start of the second phase now where staff presents the reviews to the commission; third phase is the legislative piece
  • Before the 2025 session staff will do a compliance review on agencies
  • Provides the commission with the review schedule; does not overview the details of the schedule
  • The review schedule is adopted with no discussion

 

Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and the Texas Invasive Species Coordinating Committee

Lauren Ames, Sunset Staff

  • Overviews the function of the agency; recommend the agency to be continued for 12 years
  • The legislature previously provided the agency with $150m from the ESF for the dam Structural Repair Grant Program
    • Due to the cancellation of some projects, the agency could lapse $30-40m of these funds; agency can now move funding around to prevent lapses
  • Recommend improving dam Structural Repair Grant Program in setting clear/defined goals, and a clear prioritization policy for projects
  • Review found the Invasive Species Coordinating Committee should improve district director training and standard review elements
  • Perry – They did not have funds lapse since these are multi-year projects; was involved with the $150m ESF transfer
    • They have until 2025 to spend the funds
  • Perry – The full $150m has been obligated for projects, money has been truly committed?
    • Correct, however some of the projects have been cancelled
  • Perry – Agency has a priority system on their dam structural repair program?
    • Could not determine if they had prioritized high hazard dams or the ones that would receive federal funding
  • Schwertner – The accountability of the funds is the main concern?
    • Found the agency had a lot of statutorily flexibility; did not provide adequate goals and prioritization for projects
  • Schwertner – Ask about Federal funds concerns
    • Not clear that they were prioritizing federal funding; recommend those who apply to the grant file for federal funding first
  • Schwertner – Agency has disagreed regarding these findings – do not see that often; has anything altered after these conversations with the agency?
    • Nothing has been altered; disagree with certain things from their response
  • Johnson – One of the issue Sunset has identified is the lack of a centralized filing system; recommending they have an online filing system?
    • Recommendations provide latitude on what the filing system should look like

 

Marty Graham, Chairman Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board

  • Agree with the majority of the recommendations, but are a few items we would like to provide more clarity on

 

Rex Isom, Executive Director State Soil and Water Conservation Board

  • Are respectfully disagreeing in some areas with Sunset staff
  • Are a very lean agency; have few staff to work over a large area
  • Perry – The issue may be a lack of personnel, need a formal process and a protocol to follow to increase transparency
    • Will implement what we can, but there is an extent to which we can implement it given our resources
  • Perry – How much of the $150m has been obligated? Any funding lapses?
    • Have been totally obligated; should not be funding lapses, but there are contingencies with these funds
    • Were projects that cost 30-40% higher than initially estimated; were given the ability to move money between projects about three weeks ago
  • Perry highlights his part in the creation of the 10-year plan with the $150m from the ESF
  • Perry asks about project management software and Isom notes other staff could discuss that
  • Springer – Dam Structural Repair Grant Program would benefit from more clarity and transparency?
    • If there are more layers of reporting and more confinements on how dams are prioritized, will need a minimum of two FTEs
  • Holland – Had adequate FTEs to administer that $150m?
    • Yes; brought on 1.5 FTEs in anticipation of the work associated with that
  • Holland and Isom discuss the need of more personnel
  • Austin – Scoring and ranking aligned with legislative intent?
    • Yes; will get other staff to fully answer
  • Austin – What is the timeline to complete the projects under the $150m?
    • Through 2025
  • Schwertner – Concerns about file retention; why was the agency unable to provide certain files?
    • To my knowledge we were able to provide all files; have two sets of filing systems in the accounting department and engineering department
  • Schwertner – One of the recommendations is to combine those files?
    • Respectfully disagree with that recommendation; shift to an online system would take resources
  • Schwertner – Did the agency make an error in allocating those $150m to your agency?
    • No; agency is small and nimble enough to for the task

 

Steve Bednarz, Flood Control Program Administrator Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board

  • Holland – Walk us through the entire application process
    • Overviews the application process; includes a prioritization review, design and cost estimates; add 10% or more to the final cost estimate
    • Need two agreements with sponsors if it is a state and federally funded project
  • Holland – Who signs for these projects?
    • Rex Isom, the Executive Director
  • Holland – When are these prices locked in? Asks about the postponed projects
    • After the bid; some projects are on hold because of the inflation caused by COVID-19
    • Will postpone a couple projects to complete others
  • Holland – How long is the lag time between award and bid?
    • Deadline to obligate the $150m was May 31, 2021; not all projects were planned out at that time
    • Most projects are on track to be completed before the deadline
  • Holland – Filing system is all hardcopies in filing cabinets? Any electronic versions as backup?
    • Yes; started keeping electronic records on a network drive for some of these projects after the $150m was allocated
  • Johnson and Bednarz discuss that only some documents are digitized, but the agency is moving to have a full digitized system within a year
  • Members ask about the missing documents and lack of a centralized prioritization process
    • Some of the files prior to 2019 were not properly documented; do not know what in particular was missing
    • Have a system that works for us
  • Perry – How do you rank a project?
    • Priority is to match federal dollars when they are available; rank dams by high hazard/type of repair
    • The $150m funded every application we already had on file
    • 19 projects in total were cancelled due to lack of funds or receiving other funds
    • Had new applications in light of this and ranked those separately
  • Perry – Have adopted the federal prioritization process?
    • Yes; agree with Sunset we should tell applicants why projects were not granted funds
  • Paxton – Considered connecting with DIR to address some of these filing issues?
    • Have not, but something we should consider
  • K. Bell – Asks about the cancelled projects; sponsor is who?
    • Some used the ESF funds and provided their local cost share; were four other sponsors who cancelled those projects
    • The soil and water districts are the sponsor and have a local government co-sponsor
    • Local share is 1.75% by rule on large upgrades and rehab projects
    • Is 5% local share on repairs
  • K. Bell – May need to reconsider that percentage of local share; could be an impediment to get these projects done
    • Rex Isom, Executive Director – When the program was developed, were instructed by the legislature to have local buy-in for these projects

 

Lauren Ames, Sunset Staff

  • Holland and Schwertner asked about the missing information Sunset requested?
    • Agency said they did not have most of those documents electronically
    • Were able to furnish some of the documents that were scanned; staff went to Temple specifically to get the files
    • Additional information was missing concerning why waivers were given
  • Holland – Other state agencies that have similar issues in record keeping?
    • Filing is not typically an issue for agencies
  • Austin – Any mechanism for local governments who may not be able to get a local match?
    • Is a current waiver requirement applies to dam cosponsors those who do not have taxing authority; agency could modify matching requirement in rule
    • Rex Isom – May be a good tool to pursue
  • Austin – May be use for a state infrastructure bank that could help those who need it
    • Rex Isom – Would be a good idea
    • Schwertner – We do not have a state infrastructure bank

 

Public Testimony

Calvin Sanders, VP Texas Association of Watershed Sponsors and Elm Creek Watershed Authority

  • Elm Creek is a sponsor owner of 34 dams across the state; participate in the Flood Control Grant Program
  • Have 43 local sponsor organizations in TAWS
  • Pleased with the level of communication from the board with these programs

 

Michael H, City of McKinny

  • Support the board and their prioritization process; would like to see more projects in the City of McKinny prioritized
  • Would like more transparency on the prioritization process, but sponsors need to be more responsible for their projects

 

Rick Shilling, Association of Texas Soil and Water Conservation District

  • Association represents 216 water conservation districts across the state
  • Pleased the board has been recommended to continue for 12 more years

 

  1. Pete Laney, Texas Conservation Association for Water and Soil
  • Overviews the importance of the board and supports the recommendation of the agency to continue for the next 12 years
  • Perry – Clarifies TCEQ determines what is high or low hazard

 

Commissioner Kevin Burns, Wise County and Texas Association of Watershed Sponsors

  • Dam owner of 108 structures in Wise County; appreciates the work of the board

 

Cyrus Reed, Lonestar Chapter of the Sierra Club

  • Supports all the Sunset recommendations; notes not every problem has as a solution that is regulatory
  • Specifically support recommendation 1 to increase transparency of the board’s processes
  • Supports the recommendations for the Invasive Species Coordinating Board
  • Supports the recommendations concerning nonpoint source pollution
  • Supports ensuring the soon-to-be-federally funded healthy soils data is in the annual report
  • Holland – Expand on the invasive species issue?
    • Legislation passed in 2009 have 6 agencies that need to coordinate on invasive species, which they have not been doing
    • Zebra mussels and carrizo cane are a part of the issue

 

John Foster, Policy Advisor Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board

  • Agency will provide the administrative support, agree there are things to improve
  • Primary purpose of the Invasive Species Coordinating Board was to share information about federal funding opportunities and to identify gaps and strategies within the state
    • Over time found the meetings became less useful
  • Holland – Does the Invasive Species Coordinating Board even need to continue? How often should they meet?
    • We believe so; once a year is reasonable

 

Texas Water Development Board and the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas Advisory Committee

Darren McDivitt, Sunset Staff

  • Overviews the function of the TWDB including their administration of the SWIFT; agency is not subject to abolishment
  • Reviews show the agency is working successfully, however the overall burden to the agency has dramatically increased
  • Growth has challenged the agency to efficiently administer funds for their programs
  • Recommend increased efficiency in the review process and to implement a risk-based approach
  • Recommend eliminating SWIFT advisory committee; no longer needed to oversee the now mature SWIFT program
  • Springer – Need to address why not meeting the requirement of 10% of that fund going towards rural projects? Is now 1.7%
    • Agency is falling short of legislative statutory goals for agricultural and rural projects
  • Perry – Have continuously asked this agency to do more and have not provided them more FTEs
  • Perry – Agrees the agency could do better in project management; SWIFT advisory committee holds an important purpose
  • Perry – Notes complexity of the process for rural applicants; TWDB needs to become the back office for those applicants
  • K. Bell and McDivitt discuss TWDB has the discretion to determine what counts as a rural project
  • K. Bell – If rural communities come together, would that count towards a rural project? Agrees with Perry the advisory committee is important
    • Would defer to the agency; are definitional concerns
  • Schwertner – Asks about the State Water Plan
    • Found the functions in the plan are appropriate; will hear public testimony on concerns with certain policy decisions

 

Brooke Paup, Chairwomen Texas Water Development Board

  • Sunset report is fair and reasonable; agree with all recommendations
  • Are not taking a position on whether the SWIFT advisory commission should continue
  • Overviews the functions of the TWDB including finding financial packages for borrowers
    • 50% of commitments have been to rural and disadvantaged communities
  • Need resources in order to implement the Sunset’s recommendations

 

Jeff Walker, Executive Administrator Texas Water Development Board

  • Sunset staff wrote in their report the amount of funds flowing through TWDB is “staggering”
  • Generally agree with the report and are working to implement these recommendations
  • Each year agency commits around $2b; over the last five years have gone from 300-500 projects
    • Need tools and resources to help manage projects
  • TWDB works with TCEQ and EPA to ensure the agency is meeting all standards
  • Johnson – 10% requirement for rural communities, how do we change the evaluations so the benefits are accurately measured?
    • Brooke Paup – May need to look at number of commitments rather than dollars; other programs capture benefits to rural communities
  • Perry – The 10% has to be within the SWIFT programs; do not want to undo this requirement
  • Perry – Committee will work with bundling taxing entities to ensure rural Texas benefits from the SWIFT
  • Austin – Provides an example of issues with getting the funding rural project for Lake Columbia; need to look at how to get these types of programs funded
    • Permitting process takes a long time and is expensive
  • Austin – Plan over the next couple years to get additional engineers and talent?
    • Goal is to hire project reviewers and less engineers; turnover is around 10-12%
    • Brooke Paup – Have 36 open FTE spots for highly specialized jobs
  • Austin – Is the paygrade an issue when competing with other agencies and businesses
    • Brooke Paup – Cannot compete with other business could do targeted raises to help
  • Members ask about how much Flood Infrastructure Funds have been committed?
    • Have $400m committed over 2 years
    • Brooke Paup – Around $200m is left, but have projects in the works
  • Clardy – 10% rule is there for a purpose; are looking for a way to count that a different way?
    • Brooke Paup – Looking for some flexibility on how we count those 10; like counting commitments rather than dollars
  • Holland – Agency able to administer the rest of those FIF funds? Need more staff?
    • Correct
    • Brooke Paup notes the flood program is very different than the SWIFT
  • Holland – Flood fund deals with dams?
    • Does to an extent; have two projects with dams
    • Brooke Paup – Dams are not political subdivisions so they do not meet FIF qualifications

 

Public Testimony

Alex Ortiz, Water Resources Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club

  • Asks Sunset staff conduct a review of the Economically Distressed Areas Program
    • Need to ensure the funds are disbursed equitability
  • Urge commission to direct TWDB to include climate science in the state water planning process

 

Professor Andrew Samson, Self

  • Have an opportunity to strengthen the desired future conditions process that groundwater districts and GMAs use
  • If reforms are not in place, some of the funds TWDB disburses would be at risk
  • Recommend adopting a process similar to SB 3 where stakeholders and scientific advisory committees decide upon desired future conditions
    • Could put some teeth into the DFC process
  • Schwertner – Know this is a vital issue, notes Perry has a hearing scheduled on this topic

 

Carlos Rubenstein, Self

  • Previously served as chairman of the TWDB
  • Critical link between development of desired future conditions and statewide water planning
  • Recommend TWDB conduct a technical review of how effectively GCDs plan for proper groundwater availability
  • Recommend TWDB should be charged to strengthen the role on how the DFC and MAG properly conduct water planning
  • TWDB should funded and charged to update groundwater availability models
  • Should grant authority to Texas utilities to enter into local agreements to advance regional cost savings solutions via special purpose districts; similar to Florida’s GUA law

 

Vanessa Puig-Williams, Environmental Defense Fund

  • A 2011 TWDB’s budget was cut and prevented groundwater availability models from being updated
  • Even after increases in appropriations, models are not where they should be
  • Board should have a greater role in developing the data that feeds into these models

 

Sarah Krikle, Texas Water Conservation Association

  • Support TWDB but significant growth in board has not come with sufficient resources
  • Supports staff recommends on issues 1 and 2
  • Request DFC process administration clarification on boards role when they approve management plans that districts submit
  • Perry – a bill last session would have addressed DFC reforms, tells witness even thought they have not officially taken a position they have worked behind the scenes against it; clarifies a bill will be filed this legislation that has the chair and committee support

 

Larry Patterson, Upper Trinity Water District

  • First loan secured was $4million which was essential, historical and current loans total $675 million
  • Discuss North Lake and growth because of support of TWDB
  • Support issue 1 – agrees need more people and more money
  • TWDB best agency they have dealt with

 

Amanda Fuller, National Wildlife Federation 

  • Work closely with TWDB and support Sunset recommendation on 1,2 and 3
  • Want to expand on issue 2 and SRF programs, lack of technical assistance hinders ability to access the program
  • SRF programs as critical in light of federal infrastructure bill
  • Recommends board continue to support 2% set aside and retain new funding so they can better identify and assist small rural areas

 

Jennifer Walker, National Wildlife Federation

  • TWDB has limited oversight and does not provide clear guidance on some of the planning aspects which can lead to inconsistent planning
  • Several recommendations including providing certain data they collect to various water planning groups with guidance and assistance on how to utilize the date
  • Plan must include environmental flows and resource protection

 

Danielle Goshen, National Wildlife Federation

  • Board should prioritization best management practices and provide to water groups, update water loss thresholds every 5 years and third-party audits to provide accuracy, etc.

 

Katherine Romans, Hill Country Alliance

  • Emphasizes joint written comments
  • Grateful for partnership with TWDB
  • Agrees with assessment of Sunset about providing support to rural communities in process for applying for funds
  • Small towns across the hill country are facing all sorts of challenges so increase in access would be helpful

 

David Kelly, North Texas Municipal Water District 

  • With latest application will be the largest single SWIFT borrower, some funds went to build the first major reservoir in Texas in more than 30 years
  • Also, second largest borrow in CWSRF, 18% of the fund
  • Would not be possible without funding and support of TWDB
  • Agrees with Sunset staff recommends noting CMAR vs Design Build is an issue for them as well
  • TWDB is experiencing growth and needs resources to accomplish their work

 

Jeremy Mazur, Texas 2036

  • Suggest method be established for legislature to grade agency performance and hold agency responsible for successful implementation of Sunset recommendations
    • This would allow for more holistic approach to item 1
  • Recc 2 highlights a bigger problem – what is needed is technical assistance outreach program for small, rural and disadvantaged communities to apply for TWDB assistance
  • Also wants drought to be addressed

 

Heather Harward, Texas Water Supply Partners

  • Supports Sunset report, particularly issue #1
  • Profound changes with new leadership
  • Legislature needs to give them human and fiscal resources they need
  • Recommends statutory authority they need to fulfill their mission

 

Ayanna McCloud, Bayou City Waterkeeper

  • Need in Houston for water funds
  • Review proportionality of loans being dispersed – focus on disadvantaged communities
  • Prioritize additional community outreach and outreach

 

San Antonio River Authority

Sadie Smeck, Sunset Staff

  • Review came at period of transition
  • SARA services are seeing increased demands
  • Sunset recc 1 addresses strategic planning process
  • Sunset recc 2 seeks to ensure partnerships with non-profits adhere to best practices
  • Sunset recc 3 governing law to have responsive and effective governance, need to codify governing law
  • Still rec extending even though authorities are no subject to abolishment

 

Jim Campbell, Board Chair of SARA

  • Sunset staff has been helpful and courteous and supports all recommendations
  • Affirms experience of staff at SARA including Boese
  • Schwertner – notes he appreciated not only seeing the reply from the organization but what they are doing immediately to implement

 

Derek Boese, SARA General Manager

  • Sunset Review has served as an incredible opportunity for the organization to improve and identify strength and weakness
  • Extremely thorough review
  • Thanks the Sunset staff
  • In full agreement and committed to go even what is required in order to implement

No public testimony

Schwertner Closing Remarks:

  • Deadline for public to submit written comments is COB May 2nd
  • Next meeting will be June 22 and possibly June 23 where they will make decisions on agencies heard today as well as hear public testimony on other agencies
  • Members of committee can work with staff on developing or proposing modifications – deadline will be Thursday, June 2