The Golden Hammer Staff Reports
Conroe, September 18 – The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) prepared a “Self Evaluation Report” submitted to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission of the Texas Legislature on August 30, 2019. SJRA has carefully guarded the report and attempted to keep it secret. Nonetheless, the investigative team at The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, has obtained a copy of the report.
The “sunset” process is a method by which the Texas Legislature determines whether it should abolish or reorganize a state agency. Only recently have river authorities become subject to the “sunset” process, which requires a review by the Sunset Commission of the Texas Legislature prior to the 87th Legislative Session in 2021.
SJRA has every good reason to feel embarrassment over its so-called “self-evaluation.” While the report identifies four areas of self-identified areas where SJRA’s staff believes it can improve, the monopolizing river authority failed to identify the three key areas where it has utterly failed.
SJRA’s three biggest failures
All three of those areas support a move by the Texas Legislature to abolish SJRA entirely and transfer its assets to the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District or to just about any other governmental entity. The State Snails Department would do a better job than SJRA. (That’s humor.)
It’s important to remember what the Enabling Statute of SJRA from 1935 requires the state agency to do:
By law, and as Senator Brandon Creighton, Republican of Conroe, noted during a hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee in New Caney in October, 2017, SJRA has at least two duties (1) to protect the soil from erosion, (2) to provide flood control, which SJRA simply doesn’t do at all. SJRA is sitting on $55 million of cash reserves from which it could easily provide flood control for the San Jacinto River watershed, i.e., all of Montgomery County, but SJRA merely sits on its hands.
In its 82 year history, SJRA has failed to protect soil from erosion and has failed to provide flood control, which both have become major issues in Montgomery County, especially after SJRA chose to flood East Montgomery County and areas of Conroe through its decision to engage in a mass release of water from the Lake Conroe Dam during Tropical Storm Harvey. SJRA admitted in the report that it has not even had a Flood Management Division until April, 2018. The Flood Management Division, created only 81 years too late, does nothing.
Additionally, through the work of SJRA and its governmental allies at the Woodlands Joint Powers Agency and local municipal utility districts, SJRA controlled the Board of Directors of Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD) until November 6, 2018, when, under new pro-citizen legislation, which State Representative Will Metcalf, Republican of Conroe, had authored, the LSGCD became an elected rather than appointed Board. Prior to the elected Board, SJRA and its General Manager Jace Houston controlled LSGCD and caused LSGCD to issue restrictive groundwater production regulations to enable SJRA to develop a government-controlled monopoly over water sales in Montgomery County.
By forcing municipalities such as the City of Conroe and the City of Splendora into long-term surface water purchase agreements with SJRA and through the imposition of restrictive groundwater production regulations at LSGCD, SJRA created a monopoly-like circumstance in Montgomery where large groundwater users, such as homeowners associations with private lakes, golf courses, and residential subdivision property owners, had to begin purchasing surface water from SJRA instead in order to meet water requirements.
As a result, SJRA has come to control water pricing in Montgomery County and has fiercely resisted any deregulation of groundwater production.
The Sunset Commission and the Texas Legislature should take a hard look at SJRA through the “sunset” process in order to determine whether monopoly-by-regulation of water production and restriction of private property rights are policies they wish to continue.
SJRA’s attempt to protect itself
In order to protect itself from greater reforms, which might actually break the SJRA’s water monopoly and which force SJRA to engage in real flood control and erosion control, SJRA identified four benign areas in which it felt could politically criticize itself with creating too much of a stir among legislators and other Sunset Commission members.
SJRA identified four areas where it felt he needed improvements:
- “Enhanced public communications and engagement – The activities of river authorities are often technical, complex, and generally happen behind-the-scenes. Water supply and wastewater treatment are not topics of everyday conversation. This makes it even more important that SJRA expand its efforts to effectively communicate with the public regarding its operations.” Publisher’s Comment: SJRA’s active expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars in an effort to hide the downstream modeling portions of its Emergency Action Plan from this newspaper, even after 284th District Judge Kristin Bays ordered SJRA to turn the information over to the Publisher, reveal the lack of genuineness in this statement in SJRA’s “self evaluation report.
- “Expanded use of technology and social media – The tools available for communicating information are constantly evolving. SJRA has invested significant time and effort in diversifying its communications efforts, but there is still room for improvement.” Publisher’s Comment: SJRA has done an absolutely terrible job of communicating lake release information. It’s important for SJRA to have in place a system whereby residents around Lake Conroe may receive a constant stream of information about water levels and related safety issues. More significantly, however, is how critical it is that SJRA provide robust and effective early warning to all downstream residents and neighborhoods well before SJRA releases massive quantities of water from the Lake Conroe Dam. On Monday, August 28, 2019, around 1 a.m., SJRA released 79,131 cubic feet of water per second from the Lake Conroe Dam without warning downstream residents. People died and families lost their homes as a result.
- “Comprehensive and uniform complaint resolution in a manner that can be tracked for reporting – SJRA provides multiple avenues for citizens to register their comments or concerns, and it is our policy and culture to show respect to those who take the time to comment by being prompt and responsive. However, our systems for tracking comments and responses are not uniform across divisions, and we are working on improvements to these systems.” Publisher’s Comment: That’s not an area of concern. Rather, it’s an attempt by SJRA to claim it has a “culture to show respect” when it clearly does not. One of the most frequent comments this newspaper receives is that SJRA is completely unresponsive and refuses to release information to residents in the Lake Conroe and Conroe areas.
- “Increased accessibility for historically under-utilized businesses – While the applicability of HUB laws to river authorities is not entirely clear, SJRA has made an effort to comply with the spirit of the law. We are continuing to make improvements in this area. At the outset of this process, I believe it is useful to point out some unique aspects of river authorities that are critical to their intended function. First, almost all river authorities in Texas have no taxing authority and are funded via contracts with customers who seek either a product (e.g. water supply) or a service (e.g. wastewater treatment or reservoir operation). To position river authorities to meet the diverse needs of the public they were created to serve, the Legislature typically includes in their enabling acts a long list of authorized powers. These authorized powers are not mandates but instead form a sort of ‘menu’ of options from which local public or private entities can choose. If it makes sense from an economic or efficiency standpoint, local entities can enter into contracts with river authorities to provide the requested services. These projects typically take the form of large-scale, regional partnerships among numerous local entities where the river authority can achieve efficiencies of scale that might not be possible for the individual entities. Examples include reservoirs and regional wastewater treatment plants. This unique feature also serves as a check and balance on the common tendency of govern. Publisher’s Comment: This area of concern is nothing short of euphemistic garbage. It’s meaningless and insignificant.