COVER: State Rep. Jason Isaac addresses a packed Wimberley Community Center during a February town hall meeting about a Houston company’s commercial pumping operation. SAN MARCOS MERCURY PHOTO by BRAD ROLLINS
by NEENA SATIJA
AUSTIN — After fears of a massive, unregulated groundwater pumping project sparked a passionate display of political activism by Texas Hill Country residents earlier this year, the resulting legislative efforts appear to have failed.
The Houston-based company Electro Purification plans to pump up to 5 million gallons of water per day from wellfields in western Hays County — far more water than has ever been pumped there previously, and in an area that is not covered by a groundwater conservation district that could regulate the withdrawals.
News of the project spread quickly earlier this year, as did concerns that local residents in Hays County would see their own wells run dry. (No one has proven that, although Electro Purification officials acknowledge that some residents may have to lower their pumps). The company says it is providing needed new water supplies to rapidly growing Buda and Kyle and surrounding areas.
But just days before the 2015 legislative session is set to end, none of the bills that state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, proposed in hopes of stopping the project have been successful. His key bill, which would have expanded the jurisdiction of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Groundwater Conservation District to include Electro Purification’s wellfields, failed in the House Wednesday night. If the company’s wells are within a conservation district, it would have to report how much water it pumps and potentially be subject to pumping limits.
Electro Purification’s spokesman, John Hatch, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.
“We’re just devastated,” Isaac said in an interview Thursday. Of his constituents in Hays County, who flooded lawmakers’ offices with calls over the past two months and made dozens of trips to the Capitol, he said: “They are absolutely crushed.”
In a phone interview, Gonzalez said, “I just felt [the bill] set a really bad precedent and could particularly harm rural communities.”
Isaac said he doesn’t understand Gonzalez’s argument. He pointed out that other legislation creating new groundwater conservation districts or expanding the jurisdiction of existing ones passed the chambers without a problem.
“She’s a pawn of somebody else who’s pulling the strings,” Isaac said of Gonzalez. “There are some very powerful political players that are working to thwart our efforts.”
Gonzalez said she made her own decision, and Isaac’s characterization “really makes me upset.” She said she heard concerns from “multiple stakeholders,” including Buda residents. She did not hear from Electro Purification, she said.
“I think that if we’re going to expand districts in any way, shape or form, that all stakeholders should feel comfortable with the process,” Gonzalez said.
The bill may still have a chance in the Senate. That’s a tall order given what’s already on the Senate calendar, Isaac said, and he doesn’t expect it to happen.
State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, is the Senate sponsor of Isaac’s legislation.
“It’s late in the game, but there are still a couple of vehicles I have left,” she said in an interview Thursday on the Senate floor. “It’s important to have a conservation district in that area, if we are going to protect the wells and protect the people … I will fight to the end to do that.”
Campbell did amend other Senate legislation to include language from House Bill 3405, but Isaac said he’s not optimistic the legislation will succeed that way.
Once the legislative session is over, Isaac said there are other options to try to stop the company — or at least, to make sure the company operates in a regulated environment, where it would have to report how much groundwater it pumps and be subject to certain limits. Landowners in the area could petition the state to create or expand a groundwater conservation district. Some area landowners have also sued the company.
Gonzalez said she would consider supporting future efforts to put Electro Purification’s wellfields in a groundwater conservation district. In 2017, she said, lawmakers can try again.
“Two years isn’t that far off, in reality,” she said.
NEENA SATIJUA reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.