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Travis County renews affiliation with water policy resource group

Tuesday, July 8, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Travis County Commissioners voted last week to continue participation in a Central Texas organization formed originally to purchase a section of small water utilities from the Lower Colorado River Authority. The vote came after the expression of some concern over the partnership at last Tuesday’s court session.

The county passed a resolution in February 2013 to join forces with other rural and urban counties, cities and governmental bodies in an attempt to keep water development in the region in public hands through the Utilities Development Corporation. The corporation was formed after LCRA’s 2010 effort to divest in small central Texas municipal utilities. That divestment included consideration of private involvement in the formerly public utilities.

More recently, UDC head Pix Howell has turned the attention of the group toward organizing different Central Texas entities into a water resource policy-making body. As part of those efforts, Howell has asked for Travis County’s continued involvement in the group.

Twenty-five other entities have pledged participation in the proposed policy coalition. These include Bastrop, Burnet, Hays, Williamson and Llano counties and the cities of Dripping Springs, Leander, Bee Cave and West Lake Hills.

Howell argued that there is a great need for the UDC, especially as the region’s population becomes more dense, drought forecasts loom, and business investment interests in what he called the Central Texas Triangle – the area between Austin, Dallas and Houston – continues to grow.

“We are really talking about an economically viable area of the state,” Howell said last week. “Those are the areas that are really going to be the water sponges for the next 50 to 100 years, so transmission is going to be critical. We have lots of different water resources in the state, but the key is figuring out how to build transmission lines, and in my mind those should be controlled by the public. There is no doubt that if this becomes a very critical issue, the private sector will be willing to step up and do it, but you will pay for that.”

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis was concerned about how the UDC would get funding, and whether the coalition would fit in with the Legislature’s recent creation of a voter-approved $2 billion fund to finance water infrastructure projects around the state. Projects would include reservoirs, wells and conservation efforts, and the fund will pay for up to $30 billion in water projects over the next 50 years.

“I am wondering if the state will also allow some of that to sprinkle down to help us,” Davis said.

Howell, who called Texas’ existing water plans “void and inappropriate,” said that the likelihood of communities building another reservoir is minimal, and there’s a serious lag time in getting any money from the state. Howell argued that solidifying the UDC would give the region a megaphone, one that he said would give the public’s interest a voice when dealing with the Legislature and other state entities regarding water infrastructure and policies.

Jon White, director of Travis County’s Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Division, said the county’s participation in the UDC would give it an advantage. Still, White had some concerns.

“We need to define clearly what the intent of this organization is going to be, and who all is going to be party to it,” he said. “We can’t help but notice the City of Austin has not been a participant in any of this. It’s hard to talk about the region when you have the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of it not party to the discussion.”

Austin is one thirsty gorilla. Currently, the city uses around 280,000 acre feet of water per year, Howell said. And in the last five years there has been a total of 550,000 acre feet of water flowing through the Central Texas Highland Lakes.

Tom Weber, the county’s Environmental Quality Program Manager, added that it’s also important to look carefully with whom the UDC is partnering, especially regarding the relationship between drinking water suppliers and wholesale water utilities and whether they will work in concert with the county’s interests, instead of having competing goals.

The UDC has had at least five meetings thus far, with either Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez or Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty attending, to identify more potential stakeholders. Howell said they’ve heard from Ground Water Conservation Districts and others on the need to balance the use of water resources and to create possible aquifer recharge strategies within the region. The UDC would review population growth trends, and identify current water resources, infrastructure needs, remuneration possibilities for counties that export water and best management practices for water resource development.

The coalition would reorganize itself in an official capacity under a subchapter of the Transportation Code – Subchapter D of Chapter 431 – which would give the entity flexibility if a project is completed by some portion of the membership, and other participants did not wish to contribute funding. The board membership would not be based on population per area, as with some coalitions, like CAMPO, but would have one board member per entity.

Howell noted that the idea is to have as much equity as possible in dealing with water policy issues. He added that he is hoping to come back with a more solidified formulation of the UDC in the next 90 days.

The motion to continue county involvement was approved 4-0, with Davis abstaining until more information on funding and state plans come to light. Gómez will continue acting as the county’s representative at UDC meetings, with Daugherty filling in when she is unable to attend.

Daugherty told the Monitor after the meeting that he does not see a downside to the county joining the coalition, but he said he is hesitant to continue if there is a need for funding.

“We’re probably stronger as an organization if we’re a little bit larger, versus each county having to go it alone,” he said. “But if this thing starts gaining a little more momentum and there’s a need… I’m not very excited about just putting money in an organization when quite frankly, nothing seems to happen.”

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