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Austin Water reports on water-related legislation

Tuesday, March 17, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

As Central Texas continues to face its worst drought on record, state legislators are considering several bills this session that could affect water supplies in Austin and throughout the state.

Austin Water Utility Legislative Coordinator Heather Cooke briefed the Water and Wastewater Commission Wednesday about some of the water-related bills making their way through the Texas legislature. They cover the gamut, from surface water and groundwater management to conservation, wastewater, occupational licensing and even fluoridation.

One of the major developments that Cooke pointed out is a push to create a management system for brackish groundwater, which is too saline for potable uses. In some cases, it is suitable for irrigation, or it can be desalinated and used as potable water. However, Cooke said that is an expensive and energy-intensive process

Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), appears to be leading the charge, having filed three House bills — HB 30, HB 835 and HB 836 — relating to the development of brackish groundwater. He is also chair of the House Natural Resources Committee’s new Subcommittee on Special Water Districts, which will consider all three bills.

“There are not any specific regulations right now on brackish groundwater,” Cooke said. She noted that, unlike surface water, the state governs groundwater using the rule of capture, generally meaning that a landowner has the right to pump water below the surface of his or her property. If the property falls within a groundwater conservation district, however, access is limited.

Whether lawmakers plan to open up drilling opportunities or restrict access to brackish groundwater, Cooke explained, it depends on whom you ask. “I’m hearing talk of trying to open it up — I’ve been hearing quotes of about 2.5 billion gallons or more of brackish water under the whole state,” she said, adding that some of that is below Travis County.

“On the one hand, I think there are definitely growing interests in trying to develop brackish groundwater, but there’s also growing concern among certain landowners about protecting the supplies under their ground, so you’re going to have that tension playing out at the Capitol,” Cooke added.

Commissioner J. Michael Ohueri pointed out that the issue is particularly relevant in Austin, as City Council considers whether to allow a developer to construct two golf courses and related amenities on Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park and pull irrigation water from the brackish Houston Formation of the Trinity Aquifer.

Larson has also filed a broader bill, HB 655, which Cooke said would create a new Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permitting process for aquifer storage and recovery. Aquifer storage involves storing surface water underground so that it can be recovered and used in times of need. The House has referred this bill to its Natural Resources Committee.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has altered the committee structure in a way that could affect the course of water-related bills. In consolidating the Senate’s previous 18 committees into 14, Cooke said, Patrick created a new Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs Committee, which will likely hear the bills that the old Natural Resources Committee traditionally heard.

Commissioner Mickey Fishbeck seemed surprised by this development. “I know there’s this tug-of-war between rural and urban water demand, so I’m just wondering about that move,” she said. “I don’t know what to think about that one.”

Fishbeck was likely referring to situations like the one that the Lower Colorado River Authority is experiencing. The public utility continues to face pushback from downstream rural and agricultural interests such as the Lower Colorado River Basin Coalition for requesting permission from the TCEQ — for four years in a row — to limit downstream releases from lakes Travis and Buchanan.

As far as surface water legislation goes, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) has filed SB 580, pertaining specifically to the LCRA’s Water Management Plan. Cooke said the bill that would require that the plan include a provision stating that all cities have water intakes that are low enough to withstand the drought of record.

“Austin’s intakes would comply with that,” Cooke assured commissioners. “There are smaller cities within the basin that might have some challenges with this,” she added. The Senate has referred the bill to its Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs Committee.

Conservation bills include HB 1902 and HB 1192, filed by Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) and Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs), respectively.

The first bill would expand the definition of greywater to include treated kitchen sink water and other sources. The latter bill would alter TCEQ rules to allow domestic use of greywater for toilet flushing. The House has referred both bills to its Natural Resources Committee.

HB 1581, which Cooke said she believes is the first of its kind, would require drinking water systems like Austin Water to publish detailed fluoridation information on their websites. “We can certainly do this, if that’s the legislature’s will. We’ll put it on the website,” Cooke said. The bill, filed by Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), is on its way to the Natural Resources Committee.

Photo by Davide Restivo from Aarau, Switzerland (Drops #2) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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