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New groundwater regulations on the way for Travis County

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County Commissioners are in the process of finalizing permanent regulations that would limit development that relies on groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer. Should they be approved, the new rules would replace an interim moratorium that is set to expire at the end of October.


Despite the attempts at consensus made by a stakeholder group, there was still plenty of disagreement about how to proceed. The dissenting group was headlined by State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin). He told the court that any new rules would be unnecessary.


“I have been in the process…of working on legislation to create a groundwater conservation district in southwest Travis County,” Workman said. “I see no reason why that legislation will not become law. Accordingly, the proposed development regulations that you are proposing, I believe are unnecessary.”


Workman’s statement was met with more than a little skepticism. Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber peppered him with rhetorical questions that seemed designed to illustrate his lack of knowledge about the issue. “Are you familiar with how long Travis County has been designated as a (Priority Groundwater Management Area)?” she asked.


“A good while,” he responded.


Huber pressed on. “How many years?”


“I don’t know exactly how many years, but probably in the order of 10,” responded Workman.


“It’s been over 20 years since they were designated as (such)…in that designation the high priority for obtaining a groundwater district was stated,” Huber continued. “We are one of the only counties…designated as a (Priority Groundwater Management Area) that does not have a groundwater district.”


A Priority Groundwater Management Area is, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s web site, “a program to identify areas of Texas experiencing, or expected to experience, critical groundwater problems.” It is often a precursor to a groundwater conservation district, a body that is designed to regulate the use of groundwater in a given region.


After the hearing, Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt emphasized Huber’s point. “We’ve been waiting 20 years for a groundwater conservation district,” she told In Fact Daily.


She turned to the importance of the item before the court. “In the absence of one, we must manage what is certainly a diminishing resource,” she said.


Huber told In Fact Daily that she believes that Workman was simply misinformed about the history of water issues in southwestern Travis County. “We’ve been 20 years trying to get that by representatives of both political parties,” she said. “I have no confidence that waiting two (more) years will allow us,” she trailed off before turning to the positive. “I hope we could get that,” she added.


Travis staff proposed a list of 11 rules changes for groundwater use in Travis County. They would be applied through the subdivision platting process, and tailored to affect only the western portion of the jurisdiction.


These include provisions that limit water use to only the Trinity or Edwards aquifers, mandate the creation of a map of all existing water wells on Trinity or Edwards groundwater, mandatory monitoring of water use in large subdivisions, a drought fighting measure that would demand contingency water supply plans, a timely requirement that would mandate that all subdivisions meet minimum standards for water infrastructure sufficient to fight fires, density limits, and a ban on the use of groundwater for “aesthetic features.”


Some Travis residents expressed concern that county officials simply took the harshest groundwater regulations from other Texas counties and incorporated them into their list of recommendations. Though staff did look to other counties, Huber attempted to add more context to that act. “All of the regs that we pulled from also have groundwater districts which augment those,” she said. “So why not start with the regs that have been in place in other counties that work, and if we are running into conflicting information that needs to be reviewed, I’m perfectly happy as a commissioner to say…let’s revisit this.”

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