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Environmental groups, including those in Bastrop County, seek governor’s veto on groundwater bill

Austin-American Statesman May 21, 2019

SAWDF EDITOR'S NOTE: Unfortunately, the Governor signed HB 1066 on May 21.

By Brandon Mulder 

Posted at 1:02 PM Updated at 1:02 PM

Environmental groups are attempting to derail a relatively low-profile groundwater bill as it heads to the governor’s desk for a final signature.

House Bill 1066, which was passed by the Senate and House earlier this month, was intended to be a housekeeping measure that would sync up the lifespan of a groundwater pumping permit with the lifespan of a groundwater export permit, or the permit that allows water utilities or companies to transfer water from one district to another via pipelines or other means.

According to the bill’s authors — Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, and Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio — groundwater pumping permits are often awarded on a 30-year basis while export permits last for much shorter periods of time, which causes the permits to expire at staggered times and can leave a water project developer with authorization to export water it cannot pump or pump water it cannot export. The bill would allow groundwater conservation districts, the local entities that regulate groundwater pumping, to extend export permits to align with the lifespan of a pumping permit. 

“It’s hard to do a long-term project with the permits not in sync,” said Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, during a Water and Rural Affairs committee meeting last month.

But environmental groups, including those in Bastrop County, are opposing the bill, which was intended to be non-controversial. They contend that this extension would take out the public’s ability to provide input or contest these permits. As many landowners in rural areas of the state rely on private water wells for agricultural or domestic use, some environmental groups want to ensure that they have a say in the permitting process.

“For those permitees where it is very important that their export permits sync up to their operating permit, they have the option to file for a permit amendment,” said Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, which opposes the bill in solidarity with the Save our Springs Alliance and the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund, both of which represent landowners in Bastrop and Lee counties who are contesting an LCRA groundwater permit in the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District.

“If they want to sync up those permits, they have the ability, and in the meantime we should not be cutting the public out of the process,” McGeary said.

As written, the bill allows for the board of a groundwater conservation district to initiate a public hearing if they feel one is needed or delegate the decision to the general manager of the district.

Chris Mullins, an attorney representing the Save Our Springs Alliance in Austin, argued before the Senate committee that the current arrangement allows for a public hearing process “by default, and that “landowners get to participate in the process that determines what we do with these export permits,” he said.

“Landowners want to have that default position where they get to participate in the discussion about those exports,” Mullins said.

Andrew Weir, a Bastrop County landowner and a board member of SAWDF, is one such landowners who has testified for greater certainty of inclusion.

Weir said he depends on his private water well for domestic use as no water utility will extend lines to his home. Weir is also involved in the contested permit case that has pitted several Bastrop and Lee county landowners against the LCRA over the river authority’s request to pump up to 8 billion gallons of groundwater per year. In that case, he says, he does not feel that the groundwater conservation district board is suitably representing his interest as a landowner.

“I’m supposed to trust that they’ve got my interest in mind, (although) my groundwater conservation district is fighting my status in this contested permit case,” Weir said. “They do not represent me and they do not have my interest in mind.”

Legislation similar to HB 1066 was filed last session and approved by both the Senate and House before it was vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott after his office highlighted similar concerns regarding public participation. That bill granted an automatic extension to export permits without a district’s board or general manager approval. The difference in this session’s bill — which has been endorsed by groups like the San Antonio Water System and the Texas Water Conservation Association — is that it allows for a public hearing process to be initiated by the district.

“Any member of the public can participate and petition that local body both for and against any permit that is to be extended,” said Ashby, the bill’s author. “So, absolutely, the public is very much involved in this.”

Ashby said last month that the governor’s office was supportive of the bill as written, although it had not received the governor’s signature as of Monday. SAWDF issued a press release last week asking Abbott to veto the bill.


SAWDF editor's note: SAWDF supports and assists landowners in Bastrop and Lee counties who are contesting an LCRA groundwater permit in the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, but neither SAWDF nor Save Our Springs Alliance "represents" those landowners in the contested case, as stated in this report.