Here in Texas, We're Getting Scammed Out of Millions—for Water | Opinion

Conspiracy theories run a dime a dozen in my Indian household, so when I wake up to my mom pumping a water bill in my face and telling me we were robbed, I don't bat an eye. After a few seconds of blank staring, I snatch the bill from her hands, ready to fire back with my signature weapon: rational explanation. Scanning the bill, I tick my mental checklist. Water, sewer, groundwater. But when my eyes land on the next item, my breath catches. The so-called SJRA FEE eats up more than half of the bill—more than the water itself—but there's no explanation of what it is anywhere on the page. Maybe we were robbed.

SJRA is the San Jacinto River Authority, a little-known branch of the Texas government that controls the 140 billion gallons of water in Lake Conroe. Hundreds of thousands of residents in the Greater Houston Area depend on SJRA to get clean water to their homes, and just like my mom, they're not happy about it. Twitter, Nextdoor, and nearby city councils are flooding with complaints about the exorbitant fees SJRA is tacking onto already record-high water bills, fees that stand more than $12.7 million tall annually.

It's easy to understand why we're angry. The average Conroe resident has just $5,300 in the bank, so SJRA's fees, expected to be hiked up even more in the coming year, are an unwelcome monthly drain on already scarce financial resources. And when the Texas government ​​"underinvest[s] in [water] maintenance to such a degree" that natural disasters—like the winter storms and hurricanes we weather every year—tend to be more than catastrophic, we residents are wondering what we're even paying for.

But our outrage doesn't mean anything when SJRA operates more like a corporation than a democratic leg of the government. Instead of being elected by the constituents who bear the consequences of its decisions, SJRA's board is appointed by Governor Greg Abbott (R-Texas). And Abbott's choices quickly betray his priorities. No, there aren't any environmental scientists, water experts, or anyone remotely qualified staffing the board. Controlling our most basic necessity—deciding whether residents get to live or die—is a ragtag team of CEOs, oil tycoons, and venture capitalists, who've been trained their entire career to extract profit from communities, not provide for them.

And those priorities have a human cost. Just last month, a 13-year-old boy and 31-year-old man drowned in the San Jacinto River on reading the big "Swim at your own risk" signs SJRA set on the banks when they weren't even willing to station lifeguards there. SJRA's executives provided no change and no comment after the horrific accident. And SJRA seems to have trained its employees all the way down the ladder to preserve the organization's reputation.

SJRA won't be changing anytime soon either, and it's because the system of checks and balances has unraveled in Texas over the last few decades.

For the past six years, Conroe Mayor Jody Czajkoski has been locked in a bitter legal suit against SJRA for the sky-high water fees it's pouring on consumers, and in May, the Beaumont Court of Appeals decided against SJRA in favor of the City of Conroe to the tune of $4.8 million. But we shouldn't be too quick to celebrate: That judicial decision is soon to be appealed to the radically pro-corporate, anti-consumer Texas Supreme Court, which has a history of overturning the decisions of lower courts like Beaumont's. So it would be no surprise if SJRA—with a 2.9-star-rating on Google—didn't have to pony up a single dollar and residents were forced to continue smashing their piggy banks to support an administration that doesn't even answer to them.

Water droplets
Water droplets are seen. Amy Toensing/Getty Images

The legislative channel to fix SJRA also seems to be boarded up. SJRA is undergoing review by the Texas Legislature's Sunset Commission, which hears grievances on government projects and determines whether they hold any weight. If they do, Sunset tries to fix them. At first blush, this might seem pretty great: Sunset reviews have abolished 92 poorly-performing executive agencies in the past, so it wouldn't raise any eyebrows for SJRA to join them.

But upon any extended interrogation, the Sunset Commission's investigation looks increasingly performative. The Sunset Commission has failed to look into citizens' concerns about Texas water policy or topics currently under litigation, like the seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe that hurts lower-income downstream residents but benefits wealthy celebrities and politicians who own lakeside property. And per the general manager of SJRA, Jace Houston, the few policy concerns that the commission did investigate won't have any significant impact on SJRA.

SJRA is just the newest chapter to a much longer treatise on a Texas government utterly disconnected from the electorate. Instead of framing the narrative around the economic realities we care most about—like the situation involving SJRA—the Texas government drunkenly picks up social issues to rail against: most recently, transgender student-athletes and abortion rights. Here in Texas, the demagogues and charlatans who've co-opted the reins of power care more about winning elections by firing up conservative constituents and lending a helping hand to corporations than giving residents affordable water.

Texas is thirsty for change. Abbott, approved by less than half of Texans and unchecked by our corporate judiciary and ineffectual legislature, is letting our most vulnerable residents drown in SJRA's tide. But in this year's elections, something could change. If enough voters speak, Abbott could be replaced by Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), who has pledged to prioritize people, not pocketbooks, in his decisions—potentially including better SJRA appointees.

But whatever happens in November, we need to keep speaking truth to power—keep making noise in city councils and social media and the streets about the failure of SJRA—or more and more often, we'll find ourselves waking up to a water bill, crying out "robbery!"

SJRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Siddhanth Pachipala is a rising clinical psychology and political cognition researcher, recognized by the American Psychological Association, Regeneron, and U.S. Air Force, Coast Guard, and Congress. Siddhanth founded the Asian American civic engagement nonprofit Embolden and develops data-driven diversity, equity, and inclusion toolkits for top companies.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.