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Despite two rounds of legislation, the legal tension between those who have water and those who need it remains high around the state, Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs told a conservative audience last week.

Monday, February 10, 2003 by

Combs was the keynote speaker at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’ s policy orientation. Combs outlined some of the recent cases on imminent domain before the Texas Supreme Court, adding that she was in Washington when the Department of the Interior decided to shut off water to California in a dispute over water rights.

Combs outlined some of the problems that lawmakers will have to address: • Cities across the state have a wide disparity in water usage, raising the issue of water conservation.

• Not only is water scarce, infrastructure is aging. It would take an estimated $17 billion to address the country’s current water infrastructure issues.

• Groups such as the San Marcos River Foundation are now filing permits to maintain water resources on behalf of ecosystems, the same way others have filed permits to protect industry. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has asked the TCEQ not to act on the request, questioning the agency’s authority in the area. A number of groups as well as the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the Office of Public Interest Counsel at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have filed legal briefs in support of the river foundation’s request and supporting the TCEQ’s authority to grant this use for water rights.

In the panel discussion that followed Combs, Rep. Robert Puente (D-San Antonio) said many of the veterans of the Natural Resources committees in the House and Senate will not be back this session, including Sen. Buster Brown (R-Lake Jackson), who drafted Senate Bill 1 in 1997.

Over the last five sessions, the state has made tremendous progress in the regulation of groundwater, Puente said. The committee chair noted four key areas for the House committee to consider this session: • Protection of environmental flows, like the one requested by the San Marcos River Foundation, to protect fish and wildlife.

• Conservation of water that varies so widely among cities in the state.

• Reworking current legislation to clarify the rights of the state’s groundwater districts on issues such as interbasin transfers. • The potential financing of long-term water projects in the state.

The use of permits to protect environmental flows has been hotly debated in the state, Puente said. He asked if permits to protect the environment—such as the San Marcos River Foundation’s permit for 1.3 million-acre-feet of water—should have the same standing as the permits requested by agricultural, municipal and industrial interests.. How those permits will be measured, and measured against each other, will be at issue also. Puente said the state must take a basin-by-basin approach to gauge the state’s needs.

Rep. Bill Calegari, vice chair of the House Natural Resource Committee, also spoke to the group. The Northwest Harris County Republican said interbasin transfers and rural captures will be two major issues this session and must be addressed without straining the state’s water resources.

Calegari comes from Houston, where some areas around the ship channel have dropped 10 feet due to overpumping of groundwater. Even Calegari’s own rural land has dropped two feet, even with minimal pumping over the last 30 years. Houston’s water districts are under a mandate to move from groundwater to surface water by 2030. That has pushed the creation of water authorities to negotiate water rights among hundreds of local water districts, Calegari said.

“It’s a significant problem, and fact is that it is translated to other parts of the state,” Calegari said. “As we have a greater and greater need for water—and the areas of development center around the suburbs—subsidence becomes an issue.”

Water districts must work together to more equitably share a limited resource, Calegari said. He predicted the state would one day have a network of water pipelines not unlike electrical wiring, in an attempt to provide an equitable distribution of its water. In addition, Calegari said the long-term creation of reservoirs should also be of concern to lawmakers.

Kevin Ward, executive director of the Texas Water Development Board said a recent survey by his agency estimated that the state has $3.8 billion in water and sewer upgrades that local water boards can’t afford. He also estimated that the number of water user groups unable to meet local needs would almost double, from 438 to 883, by 2050. This shouldn’t be the case given that the state has more than adequate water supplies in the east yet declining water supplies in the west.

In a counterpoint to the lawmakers, economist Fred Smith, executive director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the question is neither interbasin rights nor water conservation. Instead, the state should treat water in the same free market manner it treats oil. Private ownership of oil rights has led to tremendous resources being invested in the discovery and conservation of fossil fuels, Smith said. The question is not conservation, but treating water as a resource that has value. Texas is the only state that would spend $100 in taxpayer money to find a gallon of water, spend $10 to produce a gallon of water and then sell it to the public for one dollar, he said.

Neighbors oppose change, fearing precedent would be set

Last week the Zoning and Platting Commission made quick work of a few consent cases, postponed a few others and then adjourned. At another recent meeting, the commission recommended a zoning change for a parking lot on South Lamar over the objections of a neighborhood group. The change, from SF-3 to GR-CO, will allow part of the lot at 2403 S. Lamar to be used legally for parking.

“To me, this is a zoning case to bring an existing site into compliance,” consultant Sarah Crocker told commissioners. Crocker represented the owner of the property, Bank of America. The bank is working to find a new tenant for the lot that was formerly the home of Amy’s Toy Depot. Part of the lot, Crocker said, had never been rezoned from the single-family designation even though it had long been used for parking. The property owners have been negotiating with a bakery as a possible tenant, and the GR-CO zoning would allow some expansion into the parking area for seating.

Representatives of the South Lamar Neighborhood Association and other groups opposed the commercial zoning on the grounds that it could be used to justify the upzoning of nearby land currently used as a mobile home park. But commissioners pointed to the heavy traffic along Lamar as justification for the commercial designation. “To me, this is not a neighborhood street,” said Commission Chair Betty Baker. “The uses along Lamar historically have been city uses, community uses . . . not neighborhood uses.” Commissioner Keith Jackson agreed. “As I walk along Lamar, it’s like a state highway,” he said. “There’s CS zoning by and large along both sides of Lamar for at least the proximity of this particular case . . . and GR is less intensive than CS.”

Commissioners voted 7-1 to support the staff’s recommendation of GR-CO, with Commissioner Clarke Hammond opposed. The conditional overlay would limit the number of trips per day associated with the site. The commission’s recommendation also prohibits a number of uses, including automotive sales, automotive repair, pawnshops, service stations and any drive-through uses.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Daryl Slusher show presents . . . Dr. Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas will join Council Member Daryl Slusher on his TV program at 1pm today to discuss global warming. The show is aired live on Channel 6 from City Hall. Parmesan teaches integrative biology and is the co-author of what has been called “a break-through study” on global warming . . . Board of Adjustment meets tonight . . . The Board of Adjustment is being asked to reconsider its decision to grant a parking variance to the owner of the popular Taco Xpress on S. Lamar. The neighbors who objected apparently have asked for reconsideration. ( See In Fact Daily, Nov. 18, 2002.) The new owner of 54 Rainey Street, where Gordon Dunaway planned to build condominiums, wants to do something similar. Consultant Sarah Crocker will request that the Board of Adjustment grant a 10-foot variance for the new owner to build up to 130 feet for the planned multi-family building on Town Lake . . . Young Conservatives to protest Clinton appearance . . . The Young Conservatives of Texas and the UT College Republicans have announced their intention to picket a lecture by former President Bill Clinton Wednesday night. Clinton is speaking at the Frank Erwin Center as part of the Liz Sutherland Carpenter Distinguished Visiting Lectureship in the Humanities and Sciences. UT established the program using funds raised at a benefit honoring Carpenter in 1983. The speech has been moved from the Bass Concert Hall to Frank C. Erwin Center because of the great demand for tickets, which are free. Additional free tickets will be available at 8am today at the Erwin Center, Bass Concert Hall and Texas Union box offices. A spokesman for the Young Conservatives says they blame Clinton for “his administration’s dereliction of its constitutional duty to protect U.S. national security”. . . Raiding San Jose . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has sent 23 local business representatives to San Jose, California to promote our city as a destination for tech company expansion and relocation. Another emphasis will be on retaining the current base of semiconductor businesses currently operating in the greater Austin area. The chamber says the trip was “prompted by the loss of jobs in the Central Texas manufacturing sector, (and) is aimed at understanding future trends in the microprocessor industry and ways to help strengthen semiconductor businesses now located here.” The delegation plans to visit about 45 companies, mostly in the high-tech area. Tim Crowley, market president of Frost National Bank and Chamber Co-Vice Chair for Economic Development explained, “We want to visit company headquarters that have an Austin presence and thank them for their contribution to our economy, find out their needs and encourage them to think of us if they have expansion plans.” “But our ultimate goal is to create new jobs while further diversifying the Central Texas economy” said Charlie Lutz, President for the Central Texas Region of Bank One and Chamber Co-Vice Chair of Economic Development.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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