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Report renews hope for annexing areas into water conservation districts

Thursday, October 22, 2009 by Laurel Chesky

A draft report released late last month by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) staff may revive wilted ambitions to absorb areas of southwestern Travis County and western Comal County into existing groundwater conservation districts (GCDs). The Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) Board of Directors is scheduled to discuss the draft report at their meeting tonight. 


The draft TCEQ report proposes that the commission issue an order recommending that areas in southwestern Travis County not currently in a GCD – including Lakeway, Bee Cave, the Hills, and part of West Lake Hills – be annexed into the BCEACD and that areas in western Comal County be added to the Trinity Glen Rose Groundwater Conservation District.


The Texas Legislature began establishing GCDs in the 1950s. Under rules governed by the Texas Water Code, GCDs may limit aquifer withdrawals in order to conserve, preserve, and protect groundwater. By annexing the areas in Travis and Comal counties, their respective GCDs would be able to curb new well drilling, protecting existing wells from drying up and thus preserving property values.


“There’s a lot of science that’s saying that already or in the next 25 years, there’s going to be groundwater problems (in Central Texas) in terms of volume and/or quality,” said Kirk Holland, BSEACD’s general manager. “The only way to address those problems is through regulation and scientific and education programs addressing groundwater issues provided by GCDs. … The state doesn’t have the authority to regulate groundwater outside of the GCDs.”


The BSEACD supported a bill in the last legislative session similar to what the draft TCEQ report recommends. The bill would have allowed the 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. Western Comal County has twice rejected annexation at the polls. Southwestern Travis County has never voted on it, but that community generally supports annexation, Holland says.


“What we discovered in our town hall meetings and one-on-one meetings (held in 2008) was that there was general support for having a GCD,” he says.


However, the legislation failed. The TCEQ report, which was originally expected in December, could have provided the district some ammunition to use in the Capitol.


“We’ve been expecting this report for a long time,” Holland says. “It came too late.”


Nevertheless, after a lengthy public process, the draft TCEQ report could ultimately result in an order from the commission to move forward with annexation. The order would include the appointment of new, temporary directors representing the areas proposed for annexation until an election is held.


But if the order reflects the draft report as it now stands, that may not be a good thing, according to district officials. Unlike the TCEQ report, the aquifer district-backed legislation omitted surface-water users in southwestern Travis County from the GCD. Diluting the aquifer district with surface-water users could either kill the proposal at the polls or upset the balance of power on the board. Moreover, the district may be stuck with the bill for the election.


A TCEQ order would only be a recommendation, and the district would not be obligated to follow it. However, rejection of the order may make it more difficult to initiate any future efforts to include southwestern Travis County groundwater users in the conservation district.


“This is a very important crossroads of our future,” said Bob Larsen, BCEACD board president, at the board’s Oct. 8 meeting.


District board member Craig Smith offered more pointed comments. “It’s like a poison pill,” he said. Reflecting frustration at the killed legislation, he continued: “In the state legislature, there’s a whole art of appearing to do something but really not doing it, and that’s what (legislators) intended the whole time.”

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