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North Texas senator pulls plug on BCRAGD bill

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

A Texas senator from a district bordered by the Red River and Oklahoma apparently flushed the Bandera County River Authority and Ground Water District's (BCRAGD) bill attempting to change the date of its board election down the drain in the last minutes of the 83rd Legislature.

Senator Craig Estes, who comes from District 30, which is north and west of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, submitted a written request to the Senate Committee on Administration to remove HB 3898 from the Local and Uncontested Calendar. Estes' action occurred around 12:30 am, in the final minutes of the committee's session, the morning of the last day of the Legislative session.

This was BCRAGD's second attempt to get the Legislature to change its election date from May to November, to save local taxpayers the expense of the river authority conducting its own election. By moving the board election date to November, the actual expenses of the election could be shared with other governmental entities holding elections at that time. It was also expected that the date change would result in more voters casting their ballots in river authority board elections.

Other entities who have changed their elections to meet the November schedule include the City of Bandera and the Bandera ISD. Since BCRAGD was created by an act of the Legislature, however, it must have the Legislature officially change its election date.

In 2011, BCRAGD first attempted to make that change. During the course of working its way through the House, it was learned that the Bexar Medina Atascosa WCID (BMA), which has some rights to the surface water in Medina Lake to use for irrigation purposes and to sell to the San Antonio Water Supple (SAWS), attempted to add an amendment to BCRAGD's proposed bill.

The amendment, if passed, would have given BMA rights to water in Bandera County that BCRAGD felt compelled to protect on behalf of its constituency. Consequently, then General Manager David Jeffery asked Bandera County's representative to pull the bill.

Lobbyist hired

This time around, the BCRAGD board of directors voted to hire lobbyist Greg Ellis to shepherd HB 3898 through the legislative process. Once again, BMA, with the apparent support of several Bandera County citizens, attempted to add amendments onto the bill by meeting with Representative Harvey Hilderbran.

Again BMA wanted language added to the bill that would give it priority rights to water in Bandera County.

The local citizens group seemed concerned about language in the bill that referred to BCRAGD as a WCID, a Water Control and Improvement District. BCRAGD has been, according to Texas Water Law, a WCID since its inception in the 1970s.

Meetings between BCRAGD representatives, Ellis, and Hilderbran eventually clarified the concerns, and Hilderbran successfully worked the bill through the House. At one point, when a staffer mistakenly placed the bill on the regular calendar, Hilderbran went to the floor and demanded the bill be placed on the Local and Uncontested Calendar. Bills placed on that calendar are generally favorites of a legislator and other representatives pretty much leave those bills alone.

After a series of readings, HB 3898 was voted out of the calendar committee and on May 14 was voted on and approved by the House. It was then sent to the Senate to undergo a similar process, shepherded by Bandera County's State Senator Troy Fraser.

At one point, Senator Carlos Uresti, of San Antonio, presented an amendment that resembled BMA's amendment. Again, representatives of BCRAGD and Ellis met with the senator and after he was assured that there was nothing in the proposed bill that would be detrimental to his constituents, removed his request.

On May 21, HB 3898 was placed on the Senate's Local and Uncontested Calendar. On May 22, in the last minutes of the calendar committee's session, it was removed due to a written request to do so. Signing the request were Senator Kevin Eltife, the committee chairman, and Estes.

A staffer with Estes' office told the Courier "We were trying to get our local bill added to it and it didn't work," so Estes "blue carded" HB 3898. Eltife's General Counsel Stacy Chamberlin said that since Eltife is chairman of the committee and the request to remove requires two signatures, he probably signed as a courtesy.

Janice McCoy, Chief of Staff with Senator Fraser's office said, "We were approached by the BMA lobbyist about adding an amendment, but the BCRAGD lobbyist said 'no,' so we supported that. We're assuming they [BMA] approached Estes with the amendment."


BCRAGD General Manager Dave Mauk said that once again the district had been "bushwhacked."

McCoy said that Fraser's office is willing to help BCRAGD, but admitted that since Bandera County is new to Fraser's district, he didn't know all of the background surrounding the issue. "I don't know if there is anything we can do in the special session [currently being held by the Legislature]," said McCoy.

Mauk had high praise for Ellis and for the county's state representatives. "It was a constant fight, but Hilderbran got it out of the House unanimously, and Fraser got it out of the Senate unanimously.

They did what they were supposed to do for us," said Mauk. "They looked out for our interests. We just ran out of time."

BMA Business Manager Ed Berger has recently said in an interview that BMA [see The Courier, May 2, May 9] has hired a firm to do a study on domestic water wells around Medina Lake as well as dams upstream of the lake in the Medina River basin. The purpose for looking at the wells, said Berger, is to determine if the domestic wells are "legal" and if they are pumping water out of the lake. According to Berger, upstream dams may be preventing water that BMA is "entitled to" from flowing into Medina Lake.

The Courier has not been able to contact Senator Estes for an explanation as to why he took so much interest in a local bill to change an election date in Bandera County. His Austin office number is 512-463-0130.