Rural voters are in wait-and-see mode
The deadline for filing legislation in the 86th legislative session has passed, and the regular session will adjourn on May 27.
As usual, anything can happen in a few short weeks when legislators are in town.
Rural residents, who clearly were the swing votes that helped Republicans in the latest election, would just like to know they are taken seriously by both parties this session.
Many legislative proposals affect rural Texas every session, but water rights and property rights are always of interest in Lee and other rural communities. The 2019 session is no exception.
Lee countians feel especially targeted in recent years both by massive groundwater projects and by the specter of having their land taken through involuntary condemnation.
In the case of Burleson County’s Vista Ridge project, those two realities have merged into threatened aquifer drawdowns from 18 deep water wells, and the Vista Ridge pipeline to San Antonio that allowed a private entity to carve swaths through Lee County private property.
Local and state groups push for reform
Legislative proposals on water and eminent domain dating as far back as the 2011 session have re-surfaced in one form or another at the Legislature this session.
Some observers worry that, once again, private interests are positioning to take precedence over sustainable aquifer management and the private property rights Texans hold dear.
Central Texas water conservation groups and property rights groups based in the Lost Pines groundwater district include the all-volunteer Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund (SAWDF) and Friends of Bastrop Water, as well as Environmental Stewardship.
They are working at the Legislature to keep rural central Texas communities, aquifers and rivers from being marginalized in the rush for urban growth and development.
Their concerns range from landowners having their groundwater drained without their consent, to the dilution of local groundwater districts’ ability to regulate groundwater, and ultimately to unsustainable management of all water resources.
“There has been no let-up in the efforts of the San Antonio Water System, the private water marketers and even the Lower Colorado River Authority to bring the failed California water model of irresponsible depletion of groundwater to Texas, and leave rural Texans holding the bag,” said Linda Curtis of the state-wide, Bastrop-based League of Independent Voters of Texas.
The all-volunteer League supports the local conservation groups’ stance on groundwater and surface water, and also supports eminent domain reform as a core issue.
Eminent domain reforms move forward
The continuing need for increased fairness to landowners when pipelines and other projects take their land through forced condemnation has brought together state-wide coalitions and organizations like Farm Bureau, Texans for Property Rights, and Texas Landowners for Eminent Domain.
Modest gains were made in the 2011 session to level the playing field for landowners in involuntary condemnation proceedings.
Later sessions have seen additional reforms stymied by a wave of pipeliners, governmental and private entities with the power of eminent domain.
The groups are looking to Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, who undertook the campaign as a freshman Senator in 2015, to once again lead the charge for eminent domain reform.
She and Rep. DeWayne Burns of Cleburne filed identical omnibus bills in both houses, but her Senate Bill 421 was challenged.
Her bill made it out of committee only after she accepted stakeholder-vetted amendments, while Burns’ companion bill has not yet been heard in the House.
The bills as introduced made reforms to the process when private entities are the condemnor, including discouraging low-ball offers, requiring easement terms with minimum landowner protections, and requiring landowner meetings to explain projects.
Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown has teamed up with members of the House to introduce additional reforms through individual bills addressing survey availability to landowners, landowner repurchase rights for projects that don’t move forward, shifting of increased property taxes to the condemnor if agricultural valuations are lost, and separate offers on additional land not subject to condemnation.
Rep. Cecil Bell of Magnolia has introduced legislation to discourage “surprise” new or amended appraisals presented by the condemnor on the day of special commissioners’ hearings.
More of the same water legislation
Unlike the eminent domain reform movement, water “reforms” have almost always been initiated by the pro-development and water marketer side, to remove legal and policy obstacles to their projects.
Volunteer rural and environmental interests are generally forced to play defense against well-heeled lobbyists, although Farm Bureau and similar organizations are heavily involved in water issues.
This session bills have been introduced to further limit or even eliminate groundwater districts’ ability to effectively regulate production, in favor of aquifer-wide or regional management.
Multiple bills would give export projects like Vista Ridge a free pass to have their export permits merged into their automatically renewable pumping permits.
Sustainable Groundwater Development Act
Efforts by local aquifer protection and property rights groups to go on the offensive this session centered around two aquifer and river-friendly reform bills.
However, their pleas fell on deaf ears, even among our local representatives and senators, and the bills were not filed.
The so-called “Sustainable Groundwater Development Act” was designed to promoted sustainability and take the pressure off rural groundwater as our state’s priority source of water for growth and development.
The Act would set new standards for municipal projects, and require reliance on nearby regional resources and multiple supply sources, instead of long pipelines filled with the groundwater of distant rural communities.
The bill would have also given landowners a path to pursue damage claims directly against big pumpers.
Efforts to get LCRA out of groundwater
The second bill would have removed any authority for the Lower Colorado River Authority to develop and market groundwater, including LCRA’s pending project in Bastrop County.
Proponents of that bill argue that not only is LCRA further jeopardizing our Simsboro aquifer, but also the Colorado River, which will lose important groundwater inflows if aquifers are over-pumped.
“We will be calling on local citizens to help us get the most important parts of these bills amended on to other legislation during the session,” said Gangnes.
“Most importantly, this will include demanding help from our local representatives and senators,” she added.
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