Some windows are boarded up in the houses along E. Euclid Ave.
A new law restricts public access to residential water records of San Antonio Water System customers. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This article has been updated.

The San Antonio Water System is now shielded from disclosing information about residential water users after the utility worked with state legislators to change a law that had allowed anyone who filed an open records request to see that data.

SAWS worked with legislators on the change as predatory real estate investors were using customer data to target homeowners whose water service had been disconnected, urging — often harassing, officials said — them to sell. House flippers often used this information to target homes in low-income neighborhoods.

The new law, HB 872, was spearheaded by state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), who worked with SAWS and fellow Texas House Democrats last year after hearing from constituents targeted by predatory investors.

“If you live in one of these neighborhoods, which I do, the incessant contacts, the incessant harassment can make people feel like they’re under siege,” Bernal said in 2019 about his intention to file legislation to stop the practice. “On top of that, I haven’t heard any person who’s engaged with these folks who feels like they’ve walked away with a good deal.”

The new law went into effect immediately after it passed in June 2021.

Law allowed media to publicize top water users

Previously, state law said that public water utilities that rely on aquifers were considered governmental entities subject to disclosure requirements under Texas’ open records law.

That meant anyone could request lists of customers whose water service had been or was at risk of being shut off. SAWS said it had seen a marked increase in those types of requests in recent years.

The same law, however, also allowed local media (or anyone) to request lists of SAWS’ top residential water users. The San Antonio Express-News, for example, regularly published those lists, which sometimes prompted heavy water users to cut back or discover leaks that were causing the high use.

In those cases, the utility would send a letter to residential users whose information had been released, said Anne Hayden, SAWS’ communications manager, letting them know and offering a conservation consultation.

Under the previous law, SAWS was not permitted to ask why a requestor wanted the information.

Bernal told the San Antonio Report on Tuesday that when he looked into it, he found that CPS Energy did not have the same requirement to disclose customer information, “despite also being a public entity … and it’s already something private utilities don’t have to disclose, so we set out to create parity.”

SAWS has been aware of the issue since at least 2014, said Donovan Burton, SAWS vice president of water resources and governmental relations. But it became more urgent at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when tens of thousands of customers were struggling financially.

Bernal said he was aware the new law would also block media outlets from learning more about residential water use from public utilities across the state, but he said he felt the law’s advantages outweighed its disadvantages.

“We were essentially left with the choice: do we protect people from these predatory practices or do we leave them exposed?” Bernal said. “As a policymaker, you’re left with these tough choices where you have to ask what’s more important.”

Bernal also noted the law was specifically written to continue to allow members of the public and the media to request information on commercial or industrial customers.

Via an open records request, the San Antonio Report recently published a list of this summer’s top commercial water users, reaching out to each entity to learn how that water was being used amid the summer’s drought.

The new law also doesn’t stop SAWS customers from receiving their own water use information. In fact, SAWS has found sharing targeted water use data with customers about their own use has been key to the utility’s conservation efforts, said Karen Guz, SAWS director of conservation.

Sharing water use data key to conservation

“One thing that seems to be broadly true is that people don’t have a reason to understand what’s normal for water use at their house,” Guz said.

In 2017, SAWS launched a partnership with WaterSmart, a data software company that puts together water use reports SAWS can issue to customers who opt in to the service.

About one-third of SAWS 600,000 water users get these monthly reports, Guz said, which show users if they use more or less water than people with similar-sized homes and with the same number of inhabitants.

These targeted alerts have helped SAWS reduce water use by 3% to 5% annually, said Martha Wright, SAWS conservation resource analyst.

“To some people that may not sound like very much, but at the magnitude of people we serve over the course of a year, it’s quite a bit of savings — both for the customer and for us as a utility,” Wright said.

Data collected through WaterSmart can tell SAWS if a customer has an irrigation system, a swimming pool or is a part of the utility’s Uplift program, which helps low-income customers pay their bills. The utility then further tailors the messages to those customers, Guz said.

SAWS is even able to tell which parts of the city have more high water users, allowing it to target campaigns in these areas to remind these users of ongoing drought restrictions, Hayden said.

Meanwhile, since HB 872 went into effect, SAWS has been able to protect its residential customers’ information, Burton said. While loan sharks and home flippers still ask for the information of struggling residents, the utility can now block their requests.

“For us, it has stopped the problem,” Burton said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly ordered the steps taken to change the law; Rep. Diego Bernal led the effort, not SAWS.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...