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Aquifer district reverses

Monday, February 12, 2001 by

Course on legislative agenda

Key legislators want to open gates to water trading

By Bob Ochoa

Directors of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) have voted to abandon most of their legislative agenda in response to a decision by key members of the Legislature to fundamentally change the management and marketing of groundwater in Texas.

On Thursday, the board voted unanimously to jettison its legislative wish list that included raising the cap on out-of-district transport fees from 31 cents to a 50 cents per thousand gallons and having more regulatory say over exempt wells. The board will fight to maintain the status quo on the district’s 17-cent per thousand-gallon fee for large users and municipal systems, but will not pursue a legislative amendment to do so. Board President Craig Smith said the only customer currently in that category is the City of Kyle.

“We will be well served to come away from this session with what we have,” the district’s general manager, Stovy Bowlin, informed the board.

Bowlin said recent meetings with the staff of Sen. Buster Brown, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, have indicated that there is resistance to extending more authority to local groundwater districts, and that the district’s transport fees seem excessive.

“They don’t want local districts to be exempt (from groundwater well exemptions imposed by the state). They are concerned about (local districts) regulating domestic wells,” Bowlin said. “The transport fee is probably the most contentious issue. There will be lively debate about how to address that. Senator Brown wants a transporter to be treated equitably and not have burdensome fees imposed. I think they want everybody to pay as little as possible.”

Informal discussions at the staff level, Bowlin said, point to the possibility of a legislative push for setting fees for the transportation of groundwater from one district to another and in-district production at $5 and $10 per acre feet, respectively. “Either one of those could cripple us,” Bowlin warned. He recommended that the board refocus its attention on preserving the district’s current fee structure and seek a revision in state law that would allow districts to keep transport fees that have already been established.

Production and transport fees are currently generating about $350,000 annually for the district. Bowlin said the district needs that money to maintain its operating budget, support important research projects and fund efforts to enhance recharge of the aquifer. “If the fees were to be reduced it would preclude us from doing the level of science we are doing. We would not be able to pursue any of those things.”

Smith and Precinct 3 representative Bill Welch both confirmed what Bowlin has been hearing from Brown’s staff. Both have attended recent major groundwater conferences in which concepts of buying and selling groundwater, much as in a commodities market, have been discussed.

“Senator Brown wants to open the gates to free water trading,” Smith said, “and that will take a lot of the resources of rural areas.”

Welch said his understanding of what Brown wants to accomplish is for water “to follow the money to dry areas” of the state—to, in effect, treat the state’s aquifers as a utility grid and take water from healthy aquifers to refill those that have been depleted.

That brought a sharp reaction from board member Jack Goodman, who described the idea as ludicrous. “It’s not a sustainable solution. It’s grow, grow, grow until there’s nothing left,” Goodman said. “All I see right now is just clearing the path for people to make a bunch of money.”

Bowlin mentioned another issue that could spell disaster for Texas’ groundwater districts ability to conserve groundwater and set pumping limits to the board’s attention. A recent decision by the state court of appeals in Amarillo to overturn a lower court’s ruling in a dispute over pumping limits between the High Plains Groundwater Conservation District and the Lamesa Railroad “flies in the face of groundwater management,” Bowlin said.

The case stems from the High Plains district’s imposition of a yearly pumping limit of two acre feet of groundwater for each acre of surface property, which was challenged by the railroad. The district court agreed with the groundwater district but was overturned on appeal. Bowlin said the case has attracted the attention of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, whose membership includes every functioning groundwater district in the state, including the BSEACD.

The next meeting of the Alliance is Feb. 21 at the Manchaca Firehall. Bowlin said he expects that the court case will be high on the agenda and consideration will be given to filing an amicus brief in support of the High Plains district in anticipation that the case will wind up in the Texas Supreme Court. A defeat at the Supreme Court, Bowlin said, would essentially mean the end of groundwater districts’ power to modify the rule of capture.

In other action:

In a 4-1 vote, the board gave a thumbs up to joining the Hill Country Alliance of Groundwater Districts, a consortium of districts from Gillespie, Kerr, Bandera, Medina, Blanco, Kendall Travis and Hays counties that overlie the Trinity Aquifer.

Voting no was Don Turner of Precinct 2, who argued that the Barton Springs district is legally prohibited from spending money on out-of-district activities, which include such incidentals as the general manager’s travel costs or phone bills incurred as a result of doing business or sharing information with the Alliance. “ I don’t mind joining, but I won’t go along with running another office out of here,” Turner said.

Board member Welch suggested that expenditures come under legal review. He also noted that it would be beneficial, from a legislative standpoint, to join the Alliance. “I’ve heard members of the legislature talk about where they’re heading with water law. These types of collaborations of water districts are going to be important (for finding regional solutions).”

A new geologic map of the BSEACD and its boundaries was approved, with some revisions still pending, and will be forwarded to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission for review. The map is a product of considerable research and fieldwork. It describes the major geologic formations and recharge features of those parts of the Edwards Aquifer inside the district.

It was pointed out during discussion that field research was not allowed on two tracts of land, the Giberson tract south of Buda and Rutherford Ranch. Both places could have significant recharge features, but without a closer inspection it is difficult to know for sure, said hydrogeologist Nico Hauwert, who is coordinating the mapping project for the district. Nevertheless, Hauwert said he believes the new map represents “the best science available.”

Drought study tabled

Tempers flared and threats were made, but board members left before deciding what to do about a controversial report drafted by BSEACD staff last summer. The report concluded, in effect, that the drought emergency declared by Hays County commissioners in the Sunset Canyon subdivision during the height of the drought might have been declared prematurely.

There are differing interpretations as to the soundness of the conclusions and data. But one thing is certain about the emergency drought declaration—without it, the LCRA could not have received the quick-fire clearances the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service gave them to proceed with construction of its surface water pipeline into northern Hays County.

Comments from board members Goodman, Smith and Jim Camp of Precinct 1 that perhaps the report’s data should be completed, or “synthesized,” prompted an angry tirade from board member Turner, who threatened to take the issue to the legislature. Pounding the table, Turner declared, “If you’re going to continue with our own employees studying this crap, I’m going to put an end to it! I want you to do something about this political junk and quit spending (our) money outside the district.”

“We were asked by a neighboring district (Hays Trinity Groundwater District) to do this (study) because they didn’t have the funds to do it themselves,” Goodman shot back. Don, you want to go bellow to the legislature, go for it!”

Goodman pointed out that Hays County commissioners could have, but did not, ask the BSEACD for assistance in determining if the few wells in Sunset Canyon reported to be going dry actually constituted an emergency. The county, he said, apparently relied on the LCRA to make that determination, which some believe was also based on insufficient data and reportedly went unreviewed by other agencies.

Board members ultimately voted to table the Sunset Canyon report, with Goodman voting no and Turner abstaining.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Airport advisors still pending . . . Because of Council Member Will Wynn’s absence last week, the City Council lacked a fourth vote for revision of the ordinance on delineating qualifications for members of the new Airport Advisory Board. That vote was postponed, but Council Member Daryl Slusher made it clear that new advisors would each have to be appointed by consensus, rather than by individual members of the Council . . . Also postponed . . . The City Council also postponed consideration of major changes to the city’s subdivision ordinance . . . Planners to consider new rules . . . Tuesday night, the Planning Commission is scheduled to consider regulations governing outdoor events facilities, such as Southpark Meadows, the concert venue at Slaughter and I-35 . . . Central booking move . . . Although the city’s jail booking facility has not yet moved to the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center on 10th Street, the plan is still in motion. Planning Commissioners will look at a proposal to create a new land use classification for bail bonding services and require that site plans for such businesses receive Planning Commission approval.

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