State News

Jun 5, 2013 5:00 PM by Associated Press

Ousted Texas Water Planners: We Were 'Excluded'

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Fired under a major bill signed by Gov. Rick Perry, the state's top water planners say lawmakers drastically overhauled the Texas Water Development Board without seeking their input or offering them a chance to save their jobs.

The state is embarking on a historic restructuring of the 56-year-old water agency aimed at meeting the state's long-term water needs, while mandating the removal of Executive Administrator Melanie Callahan and the entire six-member water board. The agency has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in project funding for pipelines and reservoirs across Texas.

Their ouster comes following a 140-day session of the Texas Legislature in which concern over future water scarcity - and not hot-button conservative issues, such as abortion and gun rights - dominated the conversation in the Capitol after a historic drought in 2011 highlighted the issue's importance.

Perry last week signed the bill reforming the water agency before voters are asked to approve in November a landmark $2 billion water fund designed to provide more money for crucial projects. He said the measure "will help secure our water supplies for generations."

Speaking publicly for the first time since then, Callahan and Billy Bradford, chairman of the water board, said lawmakers did not consult with them while charting a new course for how Texas will avoid going dry for the next 50 years.

"Certainly made ourselves available. Certainly, repeatedly, indicated willingness to assist in any way," Bradford told The Associated Press. "Offered to volunteer the services of the agency and its fine employees. But excluded. Continually. Constantly."

He and Callahan declined to speculate why lawmakers did not include them. They defended their performance running a roughly 300-person agency that typically stays out of the spotlight, and carefully chose their words to avoid direct criticism.

"I'm happy with the career I've had with the state. And I'm proud of my record," said Callahan, who will leave in August.

Losing their jobs hardly came as surprise.

As early as February, the main driver of the overhaul, Republican state Sen. Troy Fraser, did not hide his frustration with Callahan and the board. He spoke candidly about wanting a fresh start and included language mandating new leadership in the original draft of his bill.

Fraser blasted Callahan and the board as slow and ineffective at a time when Texas was emerging from the 2011 drought. Several small towns nearly ran out of water, while farmers absorbed an unprecedented $7.6 billion in agricultural losses.

New Census data, meanwhile, confirmed a still-booming Texas population already had climbed 20 percent - to 25 million people - in the last decade alone. By the time the Legislature returned in January, ensuring the state will have enough water to go around had risen to bipartisan urgency.

Lawmakers' solution: spend $2 billion to launch a new water fund. By providing low-interest loans to municipalities and water authorities, the fund, they believe, ultimately will pay for $27 billion in new pipelines and projects.

But they didn't want Callahan and the board overseeing the fund.

Fraser and state Rep. Allan Ritter, who steered the water bill through the House, did not immediately return messages Wednesday.

Lawmakers were hardly blindsided by the escalating water crisis. As far back as 2001, the Legislature was warned about the need to spend billions of dollars to protect the state's water resources. Yet ideas to pay for it through water consumption taxes - or even taxes on bottled water - never got off the ground.

Callahan, when asked if she felt scapegoated over a problem that has long loomed over Texas, said she did not feel she could answer that. She said she wasn't bitter, and considered it a "huge accomplishment" that the agency never had a loan default under her stewardship.

Callahan, who had an annual salary of $135,000, joined the agency in 2001 and climbed to the top position in 2011. Last year, the Texas State Agency Business Administrators' Association recognized Callahan with its highest award.

Bradford, a partner at a South Texas accounting firm, was appointed by Perry as chairman in 2012. He and the other board members served as part-time volunteers.

Under the new governance, the water board will be cut in half to three full-time, paid members appointed by Perry. One must have worked in engineering, another have a background in finance and the last must be experienced in business or law.

Bradford praised the structure of a volunteer board that he said was "independent and objective" of those who made their appointments.

"We've got a long history of success," Bradford said. "Survived sunset (review), state auditors, etcetera etcetera. We couldn't be more proud of its performance and what we've done."

___

Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

Plushnick-Masti reported from Houston. She can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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