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Effects of groundwater bills concern Aquifer District board

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is questioning the intent of two bills coming before the Texas Legislature that it believes could make groundwater conservation districts, or GCDs, vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits.


The aquifer district’s board passed a resolution last week enumerating its concerns about potential unintended consequences that could arise if the bills were to pass.


Senate Bills 332 and 667 both reiterate the rights of property owners as they apply to groundwater–but may do more than that. Landowners across the state are nervous about the idea that any new groundwater regulations might limit their access to water, explained General Manager Kirk Holland.


GCDs are currently trying to ascertain what they want aquifers to look like 50 years from now. In 2005, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1763, which called for GCDs to coordinate and determine groundwater availability and management goals. They are currently analyzing new groundwater management data that has come out for the first time, in order to create regional water plans that will ultimately contribute to a state water plan.


“What the landowners are basically trying to do is put a marker down, if you will, that says any regulation has to be reasonable, and you have to protect the interests of the landowners,” explained General Manager Kirk Holland to In Fact Daily. “That’s fine and good, but somewhere, someone’s not going to be able to get the water that they need, or that they think that they need.”


“When you have this cap that’s going to be placed for the first time, that’s when the battle starts,” said Holland. “It’s not just good enough to protect the interests of individual landowners. We have to protect the interest of the population-at-large.”


The conservation district’s main worry is that the language of the bills may have unanticipated – and expensive – consequences.


“There are some politically charged words in SB 332: ‘vested property rights’ and ‘reasonable regulation,’” he said. “They don’t define reasonable. Our concern is that those words are going to provide openings for someone who feels like they’ve been done wrong by a groundwater conservation district as part of their normal regulations, they are just going to sue the groundwater conservation district and even if the GCD wins, it’s going to cost a lot of money to defend against that suit.  Basically, it will bankrupt GCDs.”


Aside from the troublesome language, board members had a hard time discerning a greater purpose to the bills.


“I read both of these bills, and neither one does a damn thing. It just is posturing. Both of them are posturing to a political audience,” said Director Craig Smith “Does my indefeasible right trump your vested right? What is that supposed to mean?”


“I think both bills will just create mischief,” added Smith.


Though the resolution passed unanimously, Smith questioned why it was not worded more strongly. “Why don’t we just say that we oppose 332?” asked Smith.


“Well, because this is Chairman (Troy) Fraser’s bill, to be quite truthful,” said Holland. “And all of our other bills come up in front of Chairman Fraser.”  Fraser is chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which hears most bills that pertain to groundwater districts and water regulations


Holland is scheduled testify today before Fraser’s Natural Resources Committee, where he will present the district’s resolution.

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