Local landowners and the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund, gave lawmakers an earful about failing wells and at-risk property rights in groundwater in Austin on May 10.
Andrew Wier, a Bastrop well owner and the newly appointed Executive Director for the Elgin-based SAWDF, appeared before the Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs at a hearing on interim charges on water. Along with Bastrop well owner Kermit Heaton, Lee County well owners Nancy McKee, Bill Rhodes, John DeGomez and Don Hardy appeared before Senator Charles Perry’s committee.
They also submitted written comments to augment their live testimony, which focused on their personal concerns and experience during the ongoing water supply emergency for household and agricultural wells in northeast Lee County
Full texts of some landowners’ comments, are attached to this blog.
Wier focused on “deficiencies” in the Water Code that allowdomestic and livestock well impacts to be ignored in the permitting process forlarge water projects.
Despite bipartisan support for House Bill 3619, which passed out of the House and would have cured this problem, he said neither HB3619 nor its companion Senate Bill 946 received a hearing in Chairman Perry’scommittee in the 2021 session.
Perry was reported tohave kept proposed water bills from receiving hearings in 2021, because his own proposed water legislation was not moving through the House.
A single water export project in Burleson County inearly 2020 is blamed for severe impacts on at least 200 domestic and livestockwells in Burleson County and in northeastern Lee County shortly after pumpingbegan.
Wier quantified those impacts in terms of the $400,000he stated two groundwater conservation districts have paid so far to remediatewells.
The privately owned Vista Ridge project has a permit from one of those districts, the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District (Burleson and Milam counties).
Vista Ridge is allowed to annually pump almost 55,000 acre-feet of groundwater under a 30-year contract to supply at least 50,000 acre-feet per year (about 16 billion gallons) to the San Antonio Water System.
Public interest and conservation groups like SAWDF,Bastrop-based Environmental Stewardship and the League of Independent Voters ofTexas, regard Vista Ridge as a failed water strategy to divert rural water to municipalities, a viewpoint shared by those who spoke at the Capitol last week.
San Antonio water lawyer James Lee Murphy, a strongopponent of Vista Ridge and similar long-distance export projects, spoke to the committee about the wisdom of pursuing marine desalination as the wise alternative to depleting our state’s groundwater resources.
SAWDF agreed withMurphy, saying desalination would help protect the state’s aquifers from unsustainable production, specifically including the additional 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater development in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer called for in the state water plan.
The landowners spoke of their personal concerns aboutdropping water levels, unprecedented well failures, loss of property value dueto permanent water loss to the San Antonio project, and what the future holdsfor our aquifers if mass water exports continue.
Don Hardy, who owns property in both Lee County and Kendall County in the Hill Country, spoke not only about his concerns for his Lee County water supply, but also about his concerns that Hill Country communities like Boerne in Kendall County are being offered a future water supply by SAWS. That county is outside SAWS’ service area, and was the target of SAWS efforts to sell Edwards Aquifer water outside its service area in 2019.
Legislation (HB 1806) to allow that exceptional use of Edwards water by SAWS was passed out of the legislature in 2019, but later vetoed by Governor Abbott.
Sen. Kolkhorst later zeroed in on Hardy’s concerns about SAWS’ plans to push their surplus water, including Vista Ridge water, into the Hill Country. Hardy also commented there is concern in those communities that SAWS might turn off the tap someday if the Vista Ridge project doesn’t work out as planned.
Wier urged the committee to include a recommendation in its interim report of the HB 3619 legislation to include exempt registered household and livestock wells in the permitting process, and that the committee encourage the upcoming legislature to pass it.
The landowners met with a robust response from committee members Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (Lee and Burleson counties), Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (Bastrop County), and even Chairman Perry.
The citizens’ responses to committee member questions resulted in a dialogue that far exceeded Sen. Perry’s usual one to two minute speaking limits for members of the public.
Perry seemed focused on the possible need for a financial solution to satisfy damaged well owners or even landowners who do not sell their water. He acknowledged the negative effect on property value when valuable groundwater is lost.
His comment allowed SAWDF’s Wier to inform the committee about an economic impact study SAWDF offered GMA-12 during the last round of desired future conditions planning. The study examined the effects of increased drawdowns on the communities whose water is being exported, a subject that had never been examined by GMA-12.
Perry addressed SAWDF’s concern about not getting a hearing in his committee in 2019 on proposed HB 3619 by saying it might have dragged domestic wells, that are currently “exempt” from regulation, into a groundwater district’s regulatory process.
Sen. Kolkhorst expressed concern about Vista Ridge,which is in her district, along the same lines that led her to help in 2019 to convince the Governor to veto HB 1806. She argued at that time it was unfair for SAWS to take water from far away Burleson County only to turn around and develop new customers outside its service area with water rendered surplus by the Vista Ridge supply.
Sen. Eckhardt, who carried SB 946 in 2021, seemed most concerned about the importance of hearing landowners’ personal stories and finding policy solutions, while both Perry and Kolkhorst registered disapproval of any new “regulations” on landowner wells.
McKee in particular noted that her 32-year old well suffered a sudden, unprecedented loss of water below her pump in November 2020, just months after Vista Ridge started pumping. She predicted it is only a matter of time before her well and other wells “suck air” again, since measured water levels are dropping monthly.
Rhodes’ well also had to be remediated in the same time frame. He commented that as an engineer, he is able to predict the numberof months it will take for him to go dry, as a result of ongoing drops in water levels.
Heaton stated his concerns succinctly by saying, “We need to use water where it is and not ship it all across the state. We need to not allow the rich in money or votes (like the big cities) to take it from the poor in money or votes (like our rural communities that allow all of us to eat).”
The May 10 hearing was held in response to “interim charges” House and Senate committees receive from the Lieutenant Governor (as president of the Senate) and the Speaker of the House between biennial regular legislative sessions. The next regular session begins in early 2023.
Interim charges and hearings allow advocates and otherstakeholders to influence the legislature’s policy agenda. Hundreds of ideas are submitted to legislators for consideration, but only a select few are referred back to the legislative leaders.
The various legislative committees hear from both “invited” witnesses and the generalpublic during hearings on specific charges.
The same Senate Committee plans to hold an additional public hearing, possibly in September 2022, on these specific groundwaterissues:
"GroundwaterManagement and Protection: Evaluate the status and effectiveness of the State’s groundwater management process, including data used to support regionalwater planning and conservation goals. Report on the effectiveness of theState’s groundwater protection efforts and whether statutory changes are neededto protect groundwater quality."
After the hearing, Wier said SAWDF will work with anyone wishing to testify in person or submit written comments at the upcoming hearing,or at any future House hearing on groundwater interim charges. Interested persons may contact Wier at email@example.com,or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wier also observed that Senator Perry seemed not to hear the landowners’ overarching messages last week.
He personally worked very hard on getting HB 3619 passed last session, and commented that the legislation was not really about dragging exempt wells into being “regulated” by a groundwater district. Rather, the legislation was aimed at giving well owners protection in the permitting process.
Equally important to SAWDF and landowners is the long-term sustainability of their water resources. Although rural landowners certainly have personal and financial concerns, as anyone would with failing wells and no readily available alternative water supply, he said the majority of landowners see loss of groundwater as a double threat --- to their family’s future as well as to the sustainability of groundwater resources for all future Texans.
He went on to say, it’s not just about throwing money at the problem once the aquifer is already damaged, or even about financially compensating landowners who elect to keep their water in the ground and then use it wisely on their own property. Anything that encourages stewardship and conservation is a good idea, but rural Texans’ real question is simple --- will I have access to water or will Texas have allowed its aquifers to be ruined from being “managed to depletion”?
Editor's note: A version of this blog will appear in the Giddings Times & News, May 26 edition.