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Texas Rural Water Utilities Faced With New Law: “Paint It Black”!!

One of the challenges of serving as an attorney for rural water utilities in Texas is helping my clients navigate the increasing regulatory burden on Texas rural water utilities, an issue specifically addressed in a prior blog entitled Challenges Ahead for Texas Rural Water Companies in Texas. A recent law enacted by the Texas Legislature appears to add confusion to that burden.

House Bill 1717, effective on June 15, 2007 (and now codified as Texas Health and Safety Code Section 341.0357), requires that a utility that provides fire hydrants paint black any “non functioning” hydrant. “Non functioning” is defined by the law to mean any hydrant that cannot pump at least 250 gallons of water per minute, presumably at all times. Most rural water utilities I represent do not install fire hydrants, because they simply do not have the capacity to serve their customers and produce water for firefighting as well. Those rural water utilities that do install hydrants cannot always deliver 250 gallons per minute 100% of the time.

A recent article by Ron Maloney with the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise illustrates the confusion this new law can cause. The Green Valley Special Utility District, a water district that serves 25,000 customers in Guadalupe, Comal and Bexar Counties in Texas, painted all their fire hydrants black. The water district’s general manager is quoted in Mr. Maloney’s article as saying: “It’s different in a rural district from the type of system in a municipality and a lot of things can affect flow rate. I have the flow now. But I might not have it in an hour, and we can’t guarantee it.”

942718_fire_hydrant.jpg This action has apparently angered fire departments and the emergency management coordinators of the involved counties. If I had represented the water district, I might have advised them to cover hydrants with a black tarp while the water district and the Texas Rural Water Association worked with state legislators to get an emergency bill passed to clarify the law, rather than go to the expense of painting. But tarps cost money too, the new law says you can only use tarps temporarily, and Green Valley SUD was painting the hydrants so as to leave them available for fire fighter use. The law, as currently worded, is quite clear that if the water district cannot supply 250 gallons per minute to the hydrant at all times, the hydrant must be painted black. If the water district did not paint these hydrants black, and a fire truck hooked up to the hydrant at a time when peak demand by the water district’s paying customers or a broken line caused the hydrant to deliver less than 250 gallons per minute, then you can bet that the water district will be sued by a homeowner whose house burned down. That kind of suit can result in higher insurance premiums for the water district, which translates into higher water bills for the water district’s customers. The best course of action for the rural water districts effected by this new law may be to remove all fire hydrants altogether, thus depriving the communities involved of helpful fire-fighting resources.

This new law is an example of the Texas legislature acting without thinking. Perhaps they were trying to address a hydrant that simply is not capable of producing 250 gallons per minute? This law needs to be amended promptly to take the rural water companies’ situations into account!