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Austin Congressman McCaul a Top Water User Despite Drought

The entrance to Michael McCaul's community, photographed in early November 2011.
Photo by Muliadi Soenaryo for the Texas Tribune
The entrance to Michael McCaul's community, photographed in early November 2011.

In Texas House and Senate hearings this week, state lawmakers heard repeatedly about the crisis created by the record-breaking drought — and the need for Texans to conserve water.

One elected official who has lagged on this front is U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin.

From October 2010 through September 2011 — a time period that corresponds almost exactly to the first 12 months of the drought — a property belonging to McCaul and his wife was the sixth-largest water user among all Austin residential customers, according to records obtained from Austin's water utility. The McCauls' water consumption, 1.4 million gallons over those 12 months, comes to about 15 times the consumption of the average Austin home over that time.

McCaul's spokesman, Mike Rosen, told The Texas Tribune this week that the congressman has dealt with a "series of leaks over last two to three years," and that "the leaks for the most part have gone undetected for a long time," because they were not visible on the surface. He said one leak involved a swimming pool and another, which would have affected the recent numbers, involved a busted pipe related to a contractor's work for a neighbor's realtor.

The McCauls "have sought to fix the leaks as soon as they were detected, as any other responsible person would," said Rosen, who said that the congressman is abiding by the city's water restrictions. The McCauls are now living at the house, Rosen said, but the family was in Washington during much of the past year.

Critics say the presence of a leader of McCaul's stature on such a list is problematic.

Amy Hardberger, a staff attorney with the Environment Defense Fund specializing in water issues, said she was "disappointed with the fact that a public official was on the list." She added that while she did not know details of the leak situation, it "seems unusual that there would be a leak several years in a row," and that individuals need to take responsibility to chase down leaks. "There always seems to be an excuse," she said of McCaul's situation.

Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University, noted that he did not know the circumstances of McCaul's water usage and was not singling out anyone in particular, but, "I think we should look to our leaders for more than that, particularly in times like this," he said. "I've been disappointed that people with such profile have been so tone-deaf at a time when drought is affecting us so drastically."

It was also jarring, he said, to see the juxtaposition between people who use so much and those in the same county who have no running water.

Rosen, McCaul's spokesman, said the McCauls had noticed that some of their neighbors have also appeared on the recent list, and the McCauls are discussing the situation with them. McCaul's listed address lies in a wealthy part of Austin within a gated community, whose entrance features a small but quite green patch of grass. Nearby homes, not in the community, have expansive lawns, many of which are still fairly green, a drive-by this week showed.

The congressman spoke about the drought in passing during a recent congressional hearing in Austin devoted to looking into the federal government's response to the recent Texas wildfires. McCaul criticized the feds for "what appears to be a lack of planning and slow response." He spoke briefly how the "worsening drought turned the state's vegetation into dry tinder."

Rosen, McCaul's spokesman, ridiculed a question about whether there was a philosophical connection between the wildfires and McCaul's personal water use.

"I think it's an absurd question," Rosen said.

But Hardberger, the EDF attorney, said that there was an indirect link. "Obviously the water that he used isn't going to be used to put out fires," she said. However, she added, "The one thing this drought is teaching us is, we need to think about water differently and live with water differently." That would include both policy changes and personal habits, she said.

"It's all part of a culture shift that's needed for us to survive," Hardberger said.

This is not the first time McCaul — who recently passed U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to become the wealthiest member of Congress, according to The Hill, and also recently decided not to run for Texas' open U.S. Senate seat — has appeared on Austin's biggest water user list.

In 2009, another drought year, the Austin American-Statesman reported that he ranked seventh for May of that year, when his home used 135,000 gallons of water. He told the Statesman then that the issue was an underground leak and said it had been fixed immediately, but the report noted that other months before and after May 2009 showed water usage that was still high.

Famed cyclist Lance Armstrong is also making a repeat appearance on the top-10 list. This year he is the eight-largest residential user; in 2008 the Statesman reported that he was, during the month of June, the largest single residential user in Austin — a situation he vowed to fix. 

One theory Rosen put forward to the Statesman for the McCauls' high water usage is that there could be a leak in city water pipes in the congressman's neighborhood. The Statesman reported that other homeowners are also concerned and meeting about the issue.

Austin Water Utility completed a leak-detection operation in McCaul's area in June 2010, and the team "did not find any leaks on the main that serves that area," according to Jason Hill, a utility spokesman. The way the system works, he said, is that water charges will only show up on a homeowner's bill after it has gone through the individual's meter, so, "even if we had some sort of leak in our system before that meter, no one on those meters will know that — will be charged for that water."

One additional incentive for conservation just arrived: On Tuesday, Austin water prices went up by 5 percent.

Kate Galbraith reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times' Green blog. She began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine's Southwest correspondent. A Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University from 2007 to 2008, she has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a master's degree from the London School of Economics.
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