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Groundwater districts say they're

Monday, June 4, 2001 by

Satisfied with water legislation

Tough funding decisions will come next session

The president of the board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) and the leader of the state’s groundwater alliance both expressed satisfaction with the results of Senate Bill 2, which creates an additional 33 groundwater districts across Texas and defines each district’s ability to manage and protect local groundwater resources.

“Overall, it’s a very good bill for us,” said Mike Mahoney, president of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts and manager of the Evergreen Underground Water Conservation District in South Texas. “It gives districts some additional tools that we need to create groundwater districts, to fund groundwater districts and to manage groundwater resources.”

Craig Smith, president of the board of the BSEACD, noted, “We had to be excepted out of several general provisions of the bill in order to continue charging the pumpage fees and transport fees which support the district.” He said their success was largely the result of having worked closely with the alliance, which supported BSEACD’s requests. The district, which covers part of southern Travis and northern Hays County, collects no taxes, unlike most other operating districts.

Only the City of Kyle currently transports water out of the district, paying a transport fee of 31 cents per one thousand gallons, as well as a pumpage fee of 17 cents per thousand, he said. All users pay the pumpage fee. Smith said the fees compare favorably to the price the city would pay for surface water. Kyle uses about 55 million gallons per year.

In 1997, Senate Bill 1 said groundwater districts were the preferred method for managing the state’s water resources. Central to this session’s second round of debates was the state’s rule of capture. That ability to grab groundwater by individuals or businesses had to be balanced against the rights of individual property owners, Mahoney said. Instead of modifying the state’s venerable water laws, lawmakers chose to create an overlay of additional groundwater districts to protect resources.

The legislation is important to temporary groundwater districts like Lost Pines in Bastrop County, which was created last session as one of a dozen temporary groundwater districts. The Bastrop groundwater district was created in response to Alcoa’s negotiations with the San Antonio Water System to pump water out of the local aquifer for use in San Antonio. Senate Bill 2 gives Lost Pines permanent status.

“This bill gives us the powers we need to manage and regulate the aquifer and to protect the aquifer,” said John Burke, president of the Lost Pines Groundwater District and manager of Aqua Water Supply, a non-profit water supply corporation. “We can’t prevent anybody from pumping water because of the rule of capture, but we have been given the right to protect the aquifer.”

It was clearly time for the Legislature to weigh in on the rule of capture as it relates to groundwater, said Smith, because the Amarillo Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that the rule applies even within water districts. That case, South Plains Lamesa Railroad v. High Plains Underground Water Conservation District #1, would have gone to the Texas Supreme Court if the Legislature had not acted to clarify water districts’ powers, Smith said.

Four years ago, Senate Bill 1 created regional water planning councils. Those 16 councils laid out long-term plans to protect water resources. This session, Senate Bill 2 advanced those plans even further, hammering out additions such as requiring joint management agreements between groundwater districts that share a common aquifer. The bill also instructed the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to complete a survey of aquifers in the state, outlining what issues each will have with water quality or quantity over the next 25 years, Mahoney said.

Those aquifers with the most significant issues will be designated as priority groundwater management areas, initiating creation of groundwater districts, if necessary. County commissioners courts will be instructed to create groundwater districts in affected areas. Additional language in Senate Bill 2 also strengthened the ability of each district to take landowners to court who cause harm to aquifer levels, Mahoney said.

“This is a process of making sure we have groundwater districts where they need to be,” Mahoney said. “It’s the best way to handle the issues on the rules of capture, instead of trying to change water law across the state of Texas. There’s no reason to fix something that’s not broke in most areas of the state.”

Mahoney estimates that up to 90 percent of applicable areas are now covered by a groundwater district and more districts are likely to follow, based on needs. Every area that could benefit from a groundwater district is likely to have one in the next five years under the process of Senate Bill 2, Mahoney said. Needs vary from aquifer to aquifer, but the Hill Country has some of the greatest needs for groundwater management, Mahoney notes.

Smith said the bill, which runs 98 pages, is extremely complex, similar in some ways to the Internal Revenue Service Code. Smith, a bankruptcy attorney, is familiar with convoluted legislation. There will undoubtedly be disagreement over interpretations of the bill because some sections seem to say that those who transport water out of an aquifer district must be treated the same as persons who use the water within the district, but another provision says that “the district may preserve historic use” for users who were pumping water before the effective date of the bill. Districts are also specifically allowed to regulate spacing of wells and amount of pumpage. However, they may not discriminate against a certain type of use in favor of another, Smith said.

Smith said SB 2 represents “a pretty significant incremental change,” one that will lead to a change in the way groundwater is used. In the past, groundwater has almost exclusively been used where it was produced. In the future, however, the same type of water will go to where the demand is the highest, he predicted.

And while the 77th session has been praised for its cooperative give-and-take attitude, next session is expected to be a lot tougher. Those 50-year regional water plans created by Senate Bill 1 will come back to the Texas Legislature for funding. Most of the proposed fees were stripped out of Senate Bill 2. And the price tag on new infrastructure is estimated at $30 billion, which doesn’t include maintaining current infrastructure. School employee health insurance, with a price tag of a little more than $1 billion, was just a drop in the bucket compared to the price tag for developing Texas’ water resources.

Environmentalists note new

Rules to ease air pollution

Complaints center on South Lamar, Manor Road

Environmentalists are looking forward to changes in a number of state laws that are designed to encourage energy and water conservation and reduce air pollution as part of the reauthorization of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC).

Senate Bill 5, by Senator Buster Brown (R-Lake Jackson), should have some fairly significant impact on Austin’s air quality, says Tom ‘Smitty’ Smith, director of Texas Public Citizen. “About 70 percent of the program” set forth in the bill is for retrofitting diesel engines, he said. This would primarily affect construction equipment, stationery engines like large water or sewage pumps in remote areas, and intra-urban trucks and urban delivery vehicles, he said. “The goal is to get the oldest diesel engines cleaned up and replaced with newer diesel engines that are less than half as polluting.”

This is the cheapest way to reduce NOx (nitrogen oxide), Smith said. A similar program has helped reduce NOx in California and should cut that pollutant by about one-quarter in every community in Texas, he said.

About $90 million a year is being allocated for reducing diesel engine emissions, with a variety of taxes to provide the money. The program will be funded through a variety of taxes on leased and rented equipment, as well as a tax on sales of diesel equipment. There is also an increase in registration fees for diesel trucks, Smith said. But the big shock is reserved for those moving to Texas from other states. The first Texas inspection of an out-of-state vehicle will now cost $225.

Lawmakers cited by the Alliance for a Clean Texas for their work in securing environmental protections included Rep. Fred Bosse (D-Houston) and Sen. David Bernsen (D-Beaumont), as well as Austin Rep. Glen Maxey (D) and Rep. Lon Burnham (D-Fort Worth). Environmentalists also praised Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), Robert Puente (D-San Antonio), Reps. Scott Hochberg, Debra Danburg and Harold Dutton, all Houston Democrats, and Zeb Zbranek (D-Winnie).

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

Bull Creek . . . The Planning Commission Tuesday will be asked to decide whether to allow a variance to permit construction of a new driveway off Spicewood Springs Road along Bull Creek—a move that could lead to degradation of Bull Creek, according to members of the Environmental Board who were on the losing side of an argument over a recommendation on the variance. US Rep. Lloyd Doggett and his wife, Libby, own the land, which they are seeking to develop. Environmentalists can be expected to show up for Tuesday’s hearing . . . Bridge to open . . . City of Austin officials are already preparing for the opening of the Lamar bicycle-pedestrian bridge (whatever it is named). Opening ceremonies will be at 9:30 a.m. on June 16, following the RunTex 5K Run, which will utilize the bridge . . . Name that bridge . . . The Urban Transportation Commission tonight will host a public hearing on the subject of the bike-pedestrian bridge, beginning at 6 p.m. at One Texas Center.

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