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Bill looks to solve groundwater export regulation discrepancy

Austin-American Statesman, March 13, 2019 By Brandon Mulder

Photos above: Michele Gangnes, SAWDF, and Reps. Lyle Larson and Trey Martinez-Fischer, by Nick Wagner, Austin-American Statesman

Groundwater conservation groups are urging state legislators to consider tweaking a relatively non-controversial bill that proposes to sync up groundwater pumping permits with the permits that allow companies to export groundwater out of the region.


House Bill 1066, authored by Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, and Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, was introduced to the House Natural Resources Committee last week as a housekeeping measure — a bill that would shore up a discrepancy between the 30-year lifespan of a groundwater transport permit and the much shorter, often 5-year lifespan, of a groundwater production permit. This arrangement causes the two permits to expire at staggered times, “leaving a water project developer with authorization to transfer water it cannot produce or produce water it cannot transfer,” Steve Kosub, who represents San Antonio Water Systems, said during testimony.


As written, the bill would automatically extend the life of the export permit until the expiration of the production permit, thereby synchronizing the two permits.


Conservation groups, such as the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund, based in Bastrop and Lee counties, hope to see this legislation amended so that it would only apply to permits granted from when the bill becomes law. Such a change would give groundwater conservation districts — the locally governed entities that are tasked with managing a regions’ groundwater supply — more authority to amend a permit according to an aquifer’s future conditions.


“Those permits that are in place right now, let’s let them play out,” said Michele Gangnes, director of the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund. “Give groundwater districts the right to review those permits.”


Judith McGeary, a Milam County resident and director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, similarly opposed the current iteration of the bill and asked for a similar amendment to “grandfather out” existing permits.


“A transfer permit that is currently issued first has to go through the full process and then it will be synced up from the operating permit, and then we go from there,” McGeary said.

The Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, which manages groundwater pumping in Bastrop and Lee counties, has two major water marketing companies with high-volume pumping permits on its books.


Forestar Group is permitted to pump up to 28,500 acre-feet of water per year. But because the company did not construct its pipeline infrastructure within three years of being awarded the permit, a state-imposed deadline, it is not allowed the automatic 30-year export permit. Forestar currently has permits to pump and transfer water out of the district for a five-year period.

End-Op, now known as Recharge Water, holds a pumping permit for 46,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year. However, because years-long litigation over the granted permit ended just last year, the clock on the three-year deadline was reset within the last five months.


General Manager of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District James Totten said that the way HB 1066 is currently written causes him little heartburn.


“At the end of the day, controlling the production (or pumping) I think is what’s key to the district, and this bill isn’t having an effect on that,” Totten said. “It’s the production that impacts the aquifer, not the transfer. As long as we have the ability to review the permit on a regular basis for its production, that’s what is relevant here.”

Editor's Note: SAWDF does not necessarily agree that End Op's "clock" for its 3-year deadline to extend its export permit has been "reset" under the terms of the actual permit. If the Lost Pines District acted to invoke this extension, SAWDF does not know about any such action or the nature of such action.

Readers should also check back often for Action Alerts on two pending bills, HB 1066 and HB 726, Rep. Larson's bill that contains virtually identical provision as HB 1066, plus other sweeping changes.