Nichols files legislation to help water customers

waterThree different times since 2007, Henderson County residents have battled what they called unfair water and sewer rate hikes by investor-owned utilities, often fighting a system that seems geared toward supporting the big guys.

Now, customers could be getting some help thanks to legislation filed last week by State Senators Robert Nichols (who represents Henderson County) and Kirk Watson.

The two senators co-authored a bill that would “ensure that customers have an advocate in cases over excessive rates.”

The legislation reflects the work of Senate subcommittees led by Senators Nichols and Watson in 2012. These subcommittees held hearings on steep increases in water and sewer rates that were imposed by investor-owned utilities. The policy recommendations regarding these rapidly escalating water and sewer rates, reflected in S.B. 567, will bring relief to Texans living in rural and unincorporated areas of the state.

The legislation:

  • Transfers economic regulation of water and sewer utilities from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC);
  • Establishes IOU classifications based on number of connections; and
  • Gives the Office of Public Utility Counsel (OPUC) authority to intervene in water rate cases on behalf of residential and small commercial customers.

This is the fourth consecutive Legislative session that Nichols has tried to change the system.

“There is no incentive under the law for (water utilities) to ask for a reasonable rate or to settle quickly,” he told me in 2011. “I am trying to create an incentive.”

Henderson County has been at the forefront in the battle between consumers and water utilities, with area residents fighting rate increase requests by Monarch Utilities Inc. (twice) and Lakeshore Utility Company.

The Lakeshore battle saw a judge grant interim rates for the first-time ever in September 2010, and the Monarch battle gave rise to the grassroots group Texans Against Monopolies Excessive Rates (TAMER), which has grown into a powerful lobbying organization.

TAMER Chairman Orville Bevel said, “Of course we are happy the bill has been filed and we will be working with the legislature to get it passed.”

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