David Baker, Executive Director of Wimberly Valley Watershed Association spoke to the Hays County commissioners in favor of granting Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District full TexasWater Code Chapter 36 authority. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County commissioners passed a resolution last week advising Texas State Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) and State Representative Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs) to support legislation granting the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) more authority to regulate wells and acquire funding.
However, the resolution contains amendments that stop short of asking the legislature to grant the HTGCD full Chapter 36 authority under the Texas Water Code (TWC).
Following heated debate and passionate appeals from residents, all the county commissioners voted for the resolution, with County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) abstaining.
Most of those testifying before the court supported giving HTGCD full power and resources, thus opposing an item in the resolution that had been added without their knowledge. The bullet item on the resolution was added after a Feb. 27 meeting between HTGCD President Andrew Backus, HTGCD attorney Greg Ellis and Hays County Commissioners Will Conley (R-San Marcos) and Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs). The contentious item, brokered too late for inclusion in the agenda packet, recommends exempting “existing residential well owners” from permitting and metering, and entitling “certain lot owners with no other access to water” to a pumping permit.
“I support the original resolution presented in the packet for today’s agenda,” said Susan Zimmerman of Wimberley. “… What I’m very concerned about is the process by which this revised resolution has come about. The manner in which this current resolution has been introduced unfortunately — and I really do believe unintentionally — smacks of backroom deals that are done under the cover of night. I think that process brings question on the court and does a disservice to the residents of Hays County.”
Conley stood up for the language added to the resolution, saying that the biggest problem in the area regulated by HTGCD is aquifer depletion caused by new residential developments and new wells.
“This (resolution) fully regulates that,” Conley said. “…I believe that we have done a wonderful job of putting something together that we can all support.”
Ford, who said the compromise was necessary for putting together a strong resolution, said full authority allowable under Chapter 36 is politically impossible, though residents are correct in wanting it.
HTGCD Board Member Joe Day (District 4) said that when western Hays County was designated a priority groundwater management area, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) gave residents the option of creating their own groundwater conservation district, or having one with full Chapter 36 authority imposed on them. Local creation of the district fell to the Hays County Commissioners Court in 1999.
“They and their constituents sat down and said, ‘how can we neuter this thing to where it just basically won’t function?'” Day said. “And we were able to get around that with a tremendous amount of volunteerism and very high caliber hydrogeology, and we just happen to be sitting in one of the epicenters of the retirement community from USGS (United States Geological Survey) and TCEQ …Texas State (University) and (University of Texas) … everybody (who) understands our situation down here, and they started pitching in, and we started getting things done without the resources, but we can’t continue on without this authority. We got to have that if we are going to do the desired future condition that the constituents have set forth for us.”
Day said “the overwhelming majority” of those at a series of public meetings sponsored by HTGCD indicated that the future condition they desired was “to leave springs and streams flowing to some degree during droughts of record,” which Day said is “a very difficult thing to accomplish if you don’t have full Chapter 36.”
Sumter issued a Local Disaster Declaration March 2, citing the drought’s adverse economic impact on the county’s agricultural producers, the increased risk for wildfires, and rainfall amounting to less than half the historical average in a 14-month time frame between January 1, 2008 and March 1, 2009.
Based on Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) Regional Water Plans for Region K and L, total projected water supply for Hays County by 2010 is 5,529 acre feet per year (with 3,719 acre feet per year of surface water and 1,810 acre feet per year of groundwater). Total projected water demand for Hays County by 2010, based on TWDB data, is 9,126 acre feet per year, representing “an increase from 5,531 acre feet per year in the year 2000 projection.” Total groundwater use in Hays County, according to TWDB data, averages 2,285 acre feet per year.
Based on its analysis of data supplied by TWDB Region K & L water planning groups, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Texas State Data Center at the University of Texas San Antonio, HTGCD concluded in its Groundwater Management Plan that “The County is currently exhibiting a growth rate that exceeds the regional water planning group’s projected growth rate.”
In the current enabling legislation for HTGCD, the district can only raise money through grants, like the $75,000 grant from Hays County last year, and through new well registration.
“At best we can generate fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year under that funding mechanism, which is not nearly enough,” said HTGCD Vice President Doug Wierman (District 1). “We have one full-time technician and two part-time administrators. Everything else is volunteer. All the science work is done by volunteer board members. All the work’s done by volunteer board members, basically.”
Under TWC Chapter 36, a well owner is exempt from having to obtain a drilling or operating permit if his lot is larger than 10 acres and the well pumps less than 25,000 gallons per day.
“In our enabling legislation, any residential well is exempt (if it’s not) pumping over 25,000 gallons a day,” Wierman said. “So you can put an exempt well on a quarter acre lot. And that is not sustainable … We’re charged with managing and allocating a resource when people can just put wells on any size lots they want. I don’t know of any other groundwater district that has such a blanket exemption as ours.”
Wierman said groundwater wasted via evaporation when it is used to make vanity ponds constitutes a major problem in HTGCD’s realm. Day said land developers use TCEQ regulations to create bio-retention ponds for storm water management, which, he said, are “vanity ponds in disguise.” Day said the increased revenue that full TWC Chapter 36 authority may yield for HTGCD would allow it to pre-empt the construction of such ponds in their design stage when better ways exist to manage storm water.
Wierman said the largest vanity pond that he knows of is about 11 acres. The well supplying the pond is exempt from permitting because the pond’s owner waters 300 cattle with it, though Wierman said the pond is too big for such a use. Wierman said another example of water waste HTGCD might be able to curb with full TWC Chapter 36 authority arises when landowners build ponds using pumped groundwater to get their lands designated as wildlife habitat.
“We have had about 72 pretty large ponds in order to give a few deer some water,” Wierman said. “We view it as a waste of the resource. Pumping water out to let it evaporate doesn’t make sense to us … Those are all waste in our view. And waste is a defined term under Chapter 36. A very small pond with a reasonable amount of water is not a problem in our minds. We’re not against watering animals.”
Ford said she is confident that HTGCD board members will include the commissioners court’s resolution recommending permitting and metering exemptions for existing well owners. However, Backus said board members “did not like the resolution” and Wierman said board members’ attitudes towards the exemption were “lukewarm at best.”
Said Sumter, “Establishing what the goal is really important to me. Are we interested in seeing that these water resources are equally divided amongst everyone in the groundwater district, or are there some that just are special or should be exempt? I think the other issue for me is the groundwater district itself feels uncomfortable with the resolution. I think it’s really important that we have the groundwater district supporting our resolution.”
The county commissioners’ resolution has been given to Wentworth and Rose, who still await draft legislation from HTGCD. In addition to increasing its regulatory authority, HTGCD would like to increase the terms of its board members from two to four years,
“At the end of the day Mr. Patrick Rose will sponsor whatever it is he thinks that he can get behind, and we don’t know what that is yet,” Day said.Email | Print