Trio of bills related to water have Hays County officials, residents on edge


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Water

Three bills have been filed in March that Hays County officials fear could threaten groundwater in the county. Although one of the bills has already been abandoned by its author, the other two remain threats, officials said.

Senate Bill 1814 could allow landowners whose property is larger than 1,000 acres to skirt Texas’ water laws, county and state officials said.

John Dupnik, general manager of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, the entity responsible for regulating groundwater in much of north central Hays County, said the bill would allow a property owner to “shop around for the groundwater district that is most beneficial to their interests.”

Specifically, the bill would allow landowners whose property is greater than 1,000 acres and is located within the territory of two groundwater conservation districts to petition to have one of the districts cede its authority over the property within its jurisdiction to the other district. The bill was filed by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

That is particularly concerning, Dupnik said, because a property located within the jurisdiction of the BSEACD and the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, could petition to have itself removed from the BSEACD and brought entirely into the HTGCD, which, by statute, has less ability to control groundwater pumping than the BSEACD.

Another bill, House Bill 4045, which Dupnik call “much more concerning” than SB 1814, would allow some properties—those consisting of more than 1,000 acres and that are located within the jurisdiction of two groundwater conservation districts—to forego public notices and public hearings before receiving permits from conservation districts to pump groundwater.

Staff members from the office of the bill’s author, Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, said Rep. Cortez is no longer working to pass that bill. The decision to abandon the bill was made Tuesday.

A 5,000-acre property west of San Marcos would qualify for the provisions spelled out in the first two bills and is mentioned by name in a third piece of legislation, which was filed Monday.

SB 2254, which was also authored by Sen. Hinojosa, would give the Needmore Municipal Utility District all the powers of a groundwater conservation district. Essentially the Needmore MUD would “self-regulate their own production through groundwater conservation district powers that would be provided to the utility district through the bill,” Dupnik said.

The Needmore MUD aims to “maintain and enhance the economic health and vitality of the territory in the district as a residential community and business center,” according to the legislation that created the district during the 83rd Legislative Session in 2013. To date, the property has been used for agricultural purposes, said Ed McCarthy, an attorney representing the property owners.

“The only people talking about residential development are the fear-mongers,” McCarthy said. “There is no current plan for residential development.”

The owners of the Needmore property have applied to the BSEACD for a permit that would allow it to pump up to 289.08 million gallons of water per year from the aquifer for agricultural purposes. In January that permit application was sent to the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings, which is responsible for conducting hearings for state agencies.

“I guess if the Needmore Ranch fits the characteristics, then I guess the Needmore Ranch could follow the statute,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said he was unfamiliar with SB 2254.

“Our county continues to change, and there are a tremendous amount of opportunities and benefits that come with that change, but there are also liabilities and challenges,” Commissioner Will Conley said. “There used to be a time … where the actions at the legislative level, beyond statewide law and actions, there was not a lot of action, if you will, and interest in the geographic area of Hays County. Those things have changed.”

On Tuesday the Hays County Commissioners Court approved a contract with Davis Kaufman PLLC, a Wimberley-based law firm to monitor legislation that could potentially affect Hays County. County officials said they are hopeful the firm will help them fight bills filed in March that could threaten Western Hays County’s groundwater.

In approving the agreement with Davis Kaufman PLLC for legislative monitoring services, Hays County Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe seemingly referenced Hinojosa and Cortez’s bills, calling into question why legislators from outside Hays County are writing bills that directly affect the county.

“It really amazes me that we have legislators that are not associated with this area that are way in the Valley or West Texas that get involved in Hays County’s efforts and dealings or water or issues that wouldn’t ordinarily pertain to them,” Ingalsbe said. “It really amazes me that we’re having to do this. Unfortunately … the times have changed.”

Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, who in 2015 filed legislation to bring an unregulated area of Hays County under the control of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, issued a news release Tuesday condemning legislation to undo the 2015 bill. A representative from Isaac’s office said the release was specifically in reference to SB 1814 and HB 4045.

“I’m incredibly disappointed that a few of my colleagues are playing games with the citizens of Hays County and attempting to undo the important groundwater protections that were passed last session for their own political gain,” Isaac said in the news release.

Representatives from Sen. Hinojosa’s office could not be reached for comment.