Last minute squabbling, wrangling and delaying tactics are the hallmarks of any Texas legislative session.
As of May 17, only about 5% of the 7,324 filed bills in the 86th regular session have passed, with the headline priorities of school finance, property tax reform, school safety and responses to Hurricane Harvey still pending.
But no bill introduced this session will be officially “dead” until final adjournment on May 27.
Some of the rural hot button bills the Times and News reported on in March ---water rights and eminent domain reform ---- also remained in limbo as of last week.
Eminent domain used for pipelines across Lee County
Lee county landowners have had their property taken recently through eminent domain for both the Vista Ridge groundwater pipeline coming online in 2020, as well as oil and gas pipelines.
No other local pipeline rivals Vista Ridge’s eye-catching 54-60 inch, 142 miles of pipe laid across Lee and six other counties. Starting in 2020, eighteen deep wells in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in Burleson County are slated to deliver 50,000 acre-feet of water per year to the San Antonio Water System (SAWS).
In addition to permanently depleting local aquifers, the privately-owned groundwater project will force SAWS’ customers to pay for the most expensive water in Texas.
“This project concerns not only rural residents,” said Ellen Berky, a San Antonio architect and board member of the League of Independent Voters of Texas (LIV). “Residents of San Antonio and other urban areas fear the bill only strengthens the hand of water barons who have convinced cities to enter contracts for water at twice or three times current rates.”
Only one controversial water bill passed so far
At the Legislature, local aquifer conservation groups view SAWS as leading the charge for legislation designed to use Central Texas aquifers as the primary fuel for growth from Austin to San Antonio.
“Our primary objective this session was to shift our state’s focus away from groundwater as the answer to every real estate developer’s dream,” said Michele Gangnes, a Lee County attorney and board member of the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund (SAWDF). “Texas must not follow California’s model of over-pumping its aquifers, resulting in lowered groundwater levels, degraded water quality, land subsidence, and depletion of interconnected surface water.”
However, groundwater legislation promoted by local groups to protect rural landowners, aquifers and the Colorado River never found legislators willing to file the bills.
On the other hand, bills filed to assist public and private exploitation of rural groundwater resources, and those unfriendly to groundwater districts and local control, have generally not fared well either.
The exception so far is House Bill 1066, which was specifically tailored to benefit Vista Ridge. The bill, co-sponsored by Representatives Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, and Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, is on Governor Greg Abbott’s desk after being passed in both chambers of the legislature.
Rural landowners ask for Governor’s veto
Under current law, the citizens of Burleson and Milam counties would be able to participate in a public hearing and contest the Vista Ridge export permit when it comes up for renewal. HB 1066 strips those rights away and requires the permit to be renewed "without a public hearing."
Citing Vista Ridge as a prime example why he should veto it, constituents of local groups SAWDF and Environmental Stewardship joined with the state-wide LIV, and Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) to call on the Governor to veto HB 1066.
“He vetoed the same legislation in the 2017 session,” said Bastrop landowner Andy Wier, also a SAWDF board member. “He stated then that the legislation excluded the public from participating in groundwater decisions. But big water developers convinced legislators to file this bill again. However, I believe Governor Abbott is a man of principle, and he’ll stick to his guns, and veto this legislation again.”
The Governor has until May 20 to veto, sign, or let the bill become law without a signature.
SAWS’ actions on Vista Ridge subject to scrutiny
Concerns about SAWS’ manipulation of state water policy were borne out in two other recent actions.
San Antonio will have surplus Edwards Aquifer water resulting from the glut of water SAWS will receive under the 30-year Vista Ridge contract. Still pending House Bill 1806 would allow SAWS to push that surplus beyond its current boundaries into Hill Country developments.
The other concern is the San Antonio City Council’s acceptance last week of a SAWS’ proposal to favor real estate developers over its ratepayers.
Developers will escape $87 million of development impact fees over a 10-year period that would otherwise help pay for Vista Ridge infrastructure. Meanwhile, ratepayers still face largely unknown water rate increases to pay for Vista Ridge water and infrastructure.
“This outrageous giveaway to developers who pushed the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge project on San Antonio ratepayers, makes the case for an independent audit of Vista Ridge and for the Governor to step up again to protect us.” said Linda Curtis, a volunteer for LIV.
The Times and News will report on the fate of eminent domain reform legislation, as well as the final results in water legislation in next week’s edition.
SAWDF Editor's Note --- this article was published, based on SAWDF's media release, prior to the Governor signing HB 1066 in spite of our request for a veto ---- but before we asked him to veto HB 1806 which did indeed pass both chambers onto the Governor's desk on May 23 --- see our VETO ALERT on HB 1806 in this News Blog --- numbers of calls DO matter, please call the Governor over the weekend about HB 1806 --- he can only ignore rural Texas at his peril!