GUEST COMMENTARY by PATRICK M. ROSE
Last week, Sen. Jeff Wentworth and I presented legislation relating to the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (district) before the House and Senate Natural Resources Committees. House Bill 4796 and Senate Bill 2530 would provide the district funding to conduct research needed to protect our groundwater — and very important for Hays County families — do so while respecting our private property rights and without raising taxes or creating a new tax.
The district, as created by the Legislature in 2001 and approved by voters in 2003 during my first term, is charged with the conservation, preservation, recharge, and prevention of waste of the groundwater within western Hays County.
Compared to other groundwater districts created in Chapter 36 of the Water Code, however, this district’s powers, as approved by Hays County voters, are limited. The district contends that its limited authority, especially its inability to charge an ad valorem tax, has severely hampered the district’s ability to fulfill its mission.
This session, the district requested numerous new powers including allowing district employees to enter private property, decreasing the number of grandfathered wells and allowing the district Ch. 36 taxing authority, which would in law allow up to 50 cents per $100 valuation. I do not believe that during these difficult economic times homeowners should be asked to pay more taxes on their home and property.
Sen. Wentworth and I expressed our ad valorem tax and property rights concerns to the district’s directors and they agreed to work with our offices on a new approach. Sen. Wentworth and I came up with a funding solution and took the directors verbal support as their word. With that agreement to work together, we filed legislation that requires the district to conduct a study of groundwater availability and sustainability, and allows the district to charge a flat, $2 a month groundwater conservation and management fee to finance the study.
The guidelines for charging the fee are restricted and laid out in the proposed law as follows: the fee can only be charged of customers that are served by wells that are pumping over 25,000 gallons a day, the amount of money the fee may collect is capped at $100,000 per year, and the authority to charge the fee ends in 2 years—in time to evaluate a report that the district must submit to the Hays County Commissioner’s Court prior to the next regular session of the Legislature. We do not propose making any changes to the district’s powers and authorities.
Sen. Wentworth and I believe that this is the right step forward for the district and for our community.
Unfortunately, after the district’s board president committed to work with us to promote and pass this bill, the board later reversed position and passed a resolution opposing the legislation, continuing their push for taxing and greater regulatory authority. The district has said that it needs $500,000 annually to conduct its business. According to documents provided by the district, its current annual budget is at least $148,000. Our legislation would have increased its budget by $100,000 a year–making great progress for the district. Sen. Wentworth and I are not going to promote legislation opposed by the very district we are trying to assist. Because the district recently reversed its position, this legislation will not proceed.
If you are a Hays County resident interested in protecting your water, then you will also want to follow two other pieces of legislation that our office is championing. HB 3265 grants the commissioners’ courts of some Hill Country counties, including Blanco and Hays, limited authority to regulate land development in the unincorporated area of the county. If approved by the voters, the county would be allowed the authority to set density of development, building and setback lines, a targeted infrastructure cost recovery fee and restrictions on incompatible land use.
The ability to use these powers is based directly on the desire to protect our limited groundwater, and any infrastructure fees assessed must be spent on road improvements that serve the new development. It is important that we grow in a way that protects our natural resources and that sustains our local economies.
In order to promote smarter, sustainable development and water conservation, we must better utilize rainwater harvesting in the Texas Hill Country. HB 4299 makes great strides in setting standards and guidelines for the use of rainwater so that Texas homeowners are protected, and so that banks are encouraged to work with developers to use rainwater as a real alternative to groundwater.
Both HB 3265 and HB 4299 have been favorably voted out of committee and await debate on the House floor. For more information about any of these bills, or if we can be of assistance on any other matter, please give us a call here at your Capitol office at (512) 463-0647. You can also reach us by email at email@example.com or by mail at P.O. Box 2910, Austin , TX , 78768 .
PATRICK M. ROSE, a Dripping Springs Democrat, represents Hays, Caldwell and Blanco counties in the Texas Legislature.