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Sunset commission forwards LCRA transparency recommendations to legislature

By Brandon Mulder 

Posted Jan 16, 2019 at 12:00 PM

After completing its review of the Lower Colorado River Authority last week, the Sunset Advisory Commission has made transparency and public trust the authority’s top issue.

On Jan. 9 the commission quickly passed a set of recommended changes that will be passed to the state legislature for possible ratification.

“The growing impact of LCRA’s important mission requires higher standards of openness and engagement to improve public trust,” reads the commission’s top recommendation.

The commission’s decision summary, released last week, recommends that the legislature implement changes to require the LCRA to adopt a public engagement policy for water supply projects, publicly provide more detailed financial information and, among other items, be required to provide opportunities for public testimony during its board and committee meetings.

“We want to ensure that the public has a chance to weigh in while the decision making is taking place,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who represents Bastrop County.

The LCRA’s deficit of public trust, according to the commission, was highlighted in fall when commission staff released a report that criticized the authority’s “inconsistent and often reactive” approach to public engagement, citing the authority’s contentious request to pump groundwater from the Simsboro Aquifer beneath Bastrop County.

The commission staff found that while the LCRA’s success as the region’s water supplier “hinges on its ability to improve public trust,” its relationship with stakeholders “is still fraught with tension” and its public engagement strategies “should go beyond the minimum requirements.”

The LCRA suffered a loss of public trust in a dispute stemming from its pursuit of groundwater in Bastrop County, according to the commission. In February, the authority submitted applications to the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District requesting to drill eight water wells that would pump up to 25,000 acre-feet — or 8.15 billion gallons — of water per year by 2026. Area landowners quickly coalesced opposition to the permit request upon learning of authority’s plans. The case is currently before judges with the State Office of Administrative hearings, who have scheduled a hearing on the authority’s pumping application for Oct. 22.

As observed in the sunset report, “opposition has since swelled” against the LCRA’s groundwater ask. The utility is “on the defensive, working uphill against a public trust shortage it might have alleviated with more pre-emptive public engagement on this project.”

″(Local residents) felt blind-sided by the fact their peace and quiet, and their property values — not to mention their groundwater property rights — were likely being usurped by a self-described public servant with no advanced warning,” said Michele Gangnes, founder of a Bastrop County environmental group that has been a player in the LCRA groundwater dispute.

In a public comment, LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson said that the authority agrees with the commission’s recommendations.

The ratification of these recommendations is now left to the legislative process. No sunset bills pertaining to the LCRA have yet been filed.

Editor's Note: The Statesman described SAWDF as an "environmental" group. While we proudly defend our region's aquifers and groundwater supply, we also champion the private property right of all Texas landowners to their groundwater -- not just those who, like LCRA, believe their "water rights" are somehow superior to those of their neighbors. We are proud to be associated with those landowners who are challenging the LCRA permit for the benefit of all of us --- please go to our DONATE page now and support their cause (the SOAH contested case hearing on the LCRA permit) through SAWDF. They are fighting not only for all landowners in Bastrop and Lee counties, but also for ALL Texas landowners who want to protect their groundwater from being depleted by unnecessary and redundant water supply projects.

For perspective on how the LCRA project figures in the "big picture" unfolding in Texas Groundwater ---we are in danger of traveling down the same road of groundwater folly that California has followed to its great detriment, see the next blog post. Read the comments delivered by San Antonio attorney and aquifer champion Jim Murphy, at the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District hearing on the proposed LCRA permits ~~ including his proposed legislation that is must read. Mr. Murphy's credentials to make these comments speak for themselves.