Protecting Our Water Supply in the Digital Age

By Andres Diamond-Ortiz
October 22, 2014

Private industries discharge their wastewater into Texas streams and lakes. That is an undisputed fact. In order to do so, they must first apply for a discharge permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and that process requires that TCEQ post two notices to inform the public of the permit being sought. Yet few people will ever see these notices. The reason is an antiquated rule in the Texas Water Code that requires the notice to be placed in the newspaper. In today’s world of digital media, few people bother with print newspapers. If the intent is to inform the public, wouldn’t social media provide a more appropriate venue to publish these notices?

Social media is already displacing newspapers as a source of local news. It is fairly common to see Facebook pages for cities and counties announcing burn bans, water restrictions, and road closures. The advantage of social media is that it is tailored for each user, with newsfeeds programmed to reflect the user’s interest and geographic location. As such, by publishing the discharge permit notice on social media sites, users will be more likely to be made aware of the permit being sought. It is fair to argue that the notice would likely be lost in the deluge of information and distractions provided by social media. But it would be dishonest to say that a notice on page B2 on Monday’s local newspaper would be a better option.

Why should citizens care about these notices? The discharge permit notice provide details regarding the company seeking the permit, the location of the discharge, the method of disposal (e.g., pipeline directly into the Brazos River), the limitation on the amount of effluent, and the limits of the pollutants in that effluent. The list of the allowable level of pollutants include limits on the amount of aluminum, oil, grease, copper, and coal pile runoff, for example. The discharge effluent limits are not trivial -- they can reach levels that exceed one million gallons discharged per day. And of course, it is not just one company doing the discharging.

To be fair, these permits require the approval of the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that the discharge conforms to the regulations in the Clean Water Act. But as the recent financial crisis has shown, public complacency and lax government regulation can lead to disastrous results. The protection of our water is too important to be left to government alone. Part of civic engagement in protecting that resource requires that we be informed, and one way to do that is to diffuse the information through more accessible channels. The rules should be changed to require that permit applications be posted on the local city or county’s social media page. The fact that this has not happened already begs the question: is the requirement to have notices buried in declining print media a bureaucratic oversight or a plan to keep information from the public?

 Andres Diamond-Ortiz is a second-year Masters candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.