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Barton Springs district seeks funding formula for SW Travis annexation

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 by John Davidson

If the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is going to annex and manage parts of southwestern Travis County, then the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) needs to come up with an adequate funding formula.


That is the response the district’s board members approved last week to the TCEQ staff report recommending areas of southwestern Travis County not already in a groundwater conservation district – Lakeway,  Bee Cave, the Hills, and parts of West Lake Hills – be annexed by the Barton Springs district. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 22, 2009.)


The problem is that the TECQ has not come up with a funding formula that would enable the district – which is not a taxing authority – to manage those parts of Travis County properly, according to President Bob Larsen.


“How can we afford to do it? If we try to fund it under our existing structure, we won’t generate enough funds to manage those areas,” Larsen said. “We don’t know how we can do it without diluting the resources that we get from our current constituencies. And that’s always been my concern throughout the whole process—how are we going to fund this thing?”


The district’s board’s other concern about the draft report is that its annexation recommendation does not exclude areas served by surface water in southwestern Travis County.


In the last legislative session, a bill that was similar to what the draft report recommends failed to pass, despite its exclusion of surface-water users. That bill, which the district supported, would have allowed the Barton Springs district to change its boundaries to include groundwater users in southwestern Travis County with voter approval. Annexation requires a vote of the people who live in the areas proposed for annexation.


But any proposed annexation that does not exempt surface-water users in southwestern Travis County will likely fail at the polls, according to Larsen.


“We made a compromise that when we sought annexation, we would exclude them,” Larsen said. “They don’t want another layer of government.”


The TCEQ staff report also recommended that areas in western Comal County be added to the Trinity Glen Rose Groundwater Conservation District. Western Comal County has twice rejected annexation at the polls.


Under rules governed by the Texas Water Code, GCDs may limit aquifer withdrawals in order to conserve groundwater. By annexing areas in Travis and Comal counties, their respective GCDs would be able to manage the drilling of new wells and protect existing wells from drying up.


From a scientific standpoint, says Larsen, managing these areas is absolutely necessary because the Trinity Aquifer spans Travis, Hays and Comal counties. The question of how to do it is a matter of politics.


“We need to give those areas some kind of protection,” he said. “One way to do that is to be able to manage it and place it under jurisdiction. But if we try to fund it under our existing structure, we won’t generate enough funds to manage those areas.”


Another option would be to create a new, multi-county GCD that would encompass a large swath of the Trinity Aquifer and include portions of southwestern Travis County, Hays County and Comal County. Such a GCD would, according to Larsen, be the most logical and scientific way to manage the aquifer.


The cash-strapped Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District favors that kind of approach. On Monday, the Hays-Trinity Board sent its own response letter to the TECQ that expressed a desire to dissolve itself and create a new district that includes the entire area of that district, as well as southwestern Travis County—excluding areas that do not use groundwater.


The idea to dissolve the district stems from a problem with the district’s funding structure and limits on authority, according to Board Member Andrew Backus. The district is not adequately funded and does not have the same authority that other GCD’s do, he says, and was created that way to meet the letter of the law but to avoid the full intent. “We’re basically an unfunded mandate,” he said.

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