AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new state law will steadily shut off the flow of water-use information in Austin that journalists and environmentalists traditionally used to spotlight the city’s biggest water-guzzling residences.

Last year, lawmakers passed a bill – HB 872 by State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio – that shields public utility water-use records collected by a smart meter. The City of Austin is in the midst of smart meter installation spree, so each swapped-out meter will be one less connection open to the state’s public records law.

City Council approved $95 million for the “Advanced Meter Infrastructure” project and expects to replace all the city’s approximately 250,000 water meters by 2025.

The new meters share real-time usage information. Customers can see how much water they are using, and the utility can send an alert when a meter shows unusual usage happening that could indicate a leak. Austin Water has sent more than 11,000 usage alerts to customers since installations began last January, according to records obtained by KXAN.

In the past, KXAN and other local news outlets have reported on Austin’s “Top 10 water users,” or similar stories highlighting local homes that use a million gallons or more of water in a year.

Open records advocates and environmentalists say they have transparency concerns with the new restrictions on information. On the other hand, Bernal and public utility leaders say the changes are necessary to address privacy concerns and thwart predatory lenders that use utility records as a wellspring of information to identify cash-strapped customers.

KXAN began examining the law after receiving a tip from an Austin Water customer who was concerned about potential problems with new smart meter installations. We requested the locations of smart meter installations and how many times the utility had sent notifications of unusual water use to customers with smart meters. In response, the city said the records are almost completely confidential.

“This is exactly the concern we had when the legislation was passed last year. It shuts off even general information about water usage in the community. It prevents journalists from reaching water customers they may be trying to help,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

In a public comment submitted to lawmakers last year, Shannon said her organization understands the desire to prevent predatory solicitation, but the bill would also cut off information that could identify “water wasters in a community affected by drought.”

Bernal, a former San Antonio City Council member, said he was spurred to author the bill after seeing how predatory lenders use utility information. They can take lists of customers that have delinquent bills or are eligible for disconnection, identify people struggling financially and swoop in to lend them money at exorbitant interest rates or buy their home at a substantial discount, according to Bernal and a legislative analysis of the bill.

Bernal said San Antonio Water System normally had about 5,000 people on those lists of financially-troubled customers, but when the pandemic hit that number grew to more than 41,000.

Bernal also said publicly-owned electric utilities already have this level of confidentiality, so the new rules are about “creating parity.”

“I’m trying to protect consumers from predatory lenders,” Bernal said by phone. “Municipalities have several tools at their disposal to protect the public from those who would abuse their use of water. The most vulnerable in our community often don’t.”

The bill also switches the confidentiality rules that were previously in place. Customers now must opt out of confidentiality rather than opt in.

Bernal said he appreciated FOIFT’s input and worked with water utilities in crafting the legislation.

“If there is a way to create more balance…if there is a flaw or an improvement that can be made, I am open to that conversation,” he said about the new law.