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Conservation District preps for annexation

Monday, May 18, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

With two major bills pending in Texas’ legislative session, officials with the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District discussed a potentially rushed timeline at their regular meeting Thursday.

In March, legislators put forward House Bill 3405 and Senate Bill 1440 to address Houston-based water supplier Electro Purification’s plans to pump 5 million gallons of water per day from the Trinity Aquifer.

The company is set to drill in an unregulated area within Hays County, which has nearby residents wondering how the EP well project will affect their water supplies.

If signed into law in late June, either bill would close the unregulated area and place it under BSEACD’s authority, effective immediately.

“We’re trying to balance what’s in front of us regarding annexation and the prospect of how quickly that could be effective,” John Dupnik, BSEACD’s general manager, told district directors. “We’re trying to balance being prepared for that without doing so much that we’ve wasted a lot of work, in case it doesn’t happen.”

Between the staffing plan and the potential uptick in workloads that may take place if the annexation becomes a reality, Board President Mary Stone said directors would be willing to meet on a weekly basis to ensure the process runs smoothly.

“I don’t know, with all those decisions, if we can wait two or three weeks sometimes,” Stone said. “I don’t think we want board meetings to delay things.”

Dupnik said if the conservation district annexes the land, EP’s current proposed drilling capacity — a total of 37.1 about 3.5 million gallons a day from its seven wells — would have to undergo the district’s permitting process, which could vastly redefine the allowed pumping.

BSEACD was chosen over the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District because of its greater regulatory powers permitted by law, Dupnik said.

In addition to the unregulated area that encapsulates some of Hays County and the City of San Marcos, however, the two bills put an additional portion of Travis County under BSEACD’s jurisdiction.

The second unregulated area is just south of the Colorado River, between Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 183, in the area where Riverside Drive and Oltorf Street are located.

Groundwater there is mainly brackish, which is why the area has remained largely undeveloped, Dupnik said.

“Here’s why we want to annex it: If someone was to put a big well right along (the east side of the current I-35 border),” Dupnik said, pointing to a spot near the intersection of South Congress and I-35, “they can pull all the fresh water (from the other side).”

Barton Springs is vulnerable to similar stunts if the area remains unregulated, he said. Advances in salinization technology have increased risks to the aquifer as well.

The two annexed areas would increase BSEACD’s jurisdiction by about 200 square miles. The annexation is expected to cost anywhere from $560,000 to $813,000 initially, including the cost of hiring another two full-time employees. After the startup period, the change would likely cost less than $300,000 to maintain. But BSEACD is looking at possibly sharing costs with affected counties, Dupnik said.

Directors also discussed the need to find two additional representatives for the new areas, a requirement of the bills. It would increase board membership from five to seven directors.

“It might not be a bad idea to start getting the word out, start thinking about folks out here that might be good temporary appointments,” Dupnik said to directors.

BSEACD is also trying to inform affected residents about a crucial time window, if the bills become law.

Existing well owners must apply for a temporary permit with BSEACD within 90 days after the law goes into effect to ensure that they can keep pumping. The district anticipates that an estimated 30 well owners will be affected. It will not tax any annexed areas.

SB 1440, proposed by state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), passed out of committee May 6 but has yet to be placed on the Senate’s calendar for discussion.

HB 3405, proposed by state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs), passed out of the House May 8 and has been received by the Senate.

Both bills must be read on the Senate floor for a third time by May 27.

Ed McCarthy, a lawyer with EP, told the Austin Monitor that the company “has said this whole time that they are not opposed to being in a district. With some of the legislation, the problem has been EP wasn’t allowed to come to the table and talk about the legislation. It was only about a month ago … that EP was allowed to voice some concerns.”

This article has been corrected.

BartonSprings MainSpring” by Brad606 at en.wikipediaLicensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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