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2015-06-25

New laws affect water policy in County

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

During its 2015 session, the Texas Legislature passed a number of laws regarding water issues in the state. Some of those laws may have a direct effect on local water policy.
In a kind of "third time's the charm" effort, the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District [BCRAGD] successfully ushered SB 363 through the legislative process, effectively changing the election date for its board of directors to the same November General Election date used by other governmental entities in the county. The district had attempted to make the change during two previous sessions of the legislature without success.
According to BCRAGD General Manager Dave Mauk, three other bills passed into law were of interest to the local district. Senate Bill 523 subjects river authorities to Sunset Commission audits, HB 3163 protects unpaid board members from personal litigation, and HB 3405 expanded the jurisdiction of a groundwater conservation district to include wells owned by a Houston based water supply company.
SB 523
Senate Bill 523 will certainly have a huge financial impact on BCRAGD. The law subjects river authorities to sunset reviews every 12 years. "It could cost us as much as $95 thousand, plus the internal expenses of the audit," Mauk said. The bill was introduced by Senator Brian Birdwell (Senate District 22) who said, "River authorities were created by the legislature, but their boards of directors are appointed by the governor and they receive no funding through the appropriations process. Unfortunately, this creates a unique, quasi-governmental agency that provides no public recourse for citizens with concerns.
"These appointed boards are not accountable to voters, and as such, a Sunset review will give citizens the ability to publicly discuss the governance and efficiency of how their water is managed, and further enable their legislators to impact necessary change through the Sunset recommendations," Birdwell said on the Senate floor.
Sadly, Birdwell and his fellow senators failed to differentiate between those appointed river authority boards with huge budgets, like LCRA, and smaller, locally elected RA boards, like BCRAGD. No way to tell if that significant error was deliberate, or not.
Thanks to the efforts of State Representative Andrew Murr, BCRAGD, which was scheduled to be audited in the first round of reviews, due to alphabetical order, was given a few years before they will be subject to the audit.
"It's a mandate," said Mauk, "we have to pay for it, so it's a hike on the taxpayers of Bandera County."
Unfortunately, paying for the audit will take funds away from other BCRAGD programs, like monitor wells, well plugging, collecting data on our aquifers and education.
Mauk surmised that if a little river authority doesn't or cannot fund the audit, that will be used as a lever to shut down the river authority, and "it opens a door up to someone outside coming in." In Austin there is, said Mauk, a real underlying attitude among the powerful who look to control water in the state that the "little districts need to go away." Again calling into question Birdwell's motives in lumping small RAs with locally elected boards, right along with the giants with budgets in the millions of dollars whose boards are appointed by the governor.
HB 3163
A case in Bastrop County in which a member of a water district board was sued individually for action taken by the board brought about HB 3163. The bill amends the Texas Water Code to say "A district board member acting in his individual capacity is immune from suit and liability for actions taken on behalf of the board."
It goes on to say attempting to bring suit against an individual board member for "actions taken on behalf of the board or for an official vote shall constitute coercion of a public official."
HB 3405
House Bill 3405 was presented by State Representative Jason Isaac from Dripping Springs in response to a private water supply company's plan to pump five million gallons daily from the Trinity Aquifer in Hays County to sell to Austin area suburbs.
The bill expands the jurisdiction of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Groundwater Conservation District to include wells owned by a Houston company called Electro Purification. The company will now have to report to the district how much water it withdraws from the Trinity Aquifer and could potentially be subject to pumping limits.
The mayor of Buda, one of the recipients of Electro Purification's water, expressed dismay after the passage of the bill, fearing his city will suffer water shortages in the near future. The mayor apparently failed to express any concern for residents of Hays County running short of water.
Despite the passage of HB 3405, the situation in Hays County will continue to provide opportunities for attorneys regarding pumping limits and other water related issues.