A petition from the Aquifer Conservation Alliance to annex half of Williamson County into a neighboring groundwater conservation district was voted down during a Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District board of directors meeting Feb. 14.

What’s happening

The Clearwater UWCD, based in Bell County, received a petition from the ACA to annex half of Williamson County into its jurisdiction. The district, which manages and regulates the use of water wells, had the option to approve the petition, which would have folded everything in Williamson County west of I-35 into its territory after a subsequent confirmation election asking for voter approval.

“We want the people of Williamson County to vote on it,” ACA President Keith Elliston said.

However, the Clearwater UWCD board of directors voted not to approve the petition, citing exorbitant costs it would take to run an election. It would have cost the Clearwater UWCD $75,000 to run the election in Bell County and another $380,000 to run the election in Williamson County.

How we got here

The ACA, an organization formed by a group of WilCo residents, has been pushing the last couple of years to see a groundwater conservation district established within the county, or see a portion of the county annexed into an existing GCD.

The group initially filed a petition with the conservation district last year but withdrew it in March 2023, citing “political pressures at play.” In December, the ACA refiled the petition with Clearwater UWCD.

Per state law, Clearwater’s board of directors is required to hold hearings for any petition to annex land into its jurisdiction. Two meetings were held Feb. 12 and 13, giving the board a chance to hear concerns and comments from the public.

The approach

Searching for the right balance between property rights, shared water resources and area representation, Williamson County residents, government officials and business owners packed into a room at the Cedar Park Recreation Center on Feb. 12 for one of two hearings on whether to annex half of the county into the groundwater conservation district.

After roughly two hours of public comment, the meeting ended with many stakeholders in favor of the proposal and many against it. The group did appear to reach a consensus on one issue: Williamson County needs to address water usage and well management.

“Something needs to be done, and something needs to be done very, very soon,” said Charles Shell, who spoke neither in favor or against the proposition.

Zooming in

The Clearwater UWCD is a taxing entity, which means if the annexation were to have passed, property owners would pay an ad valorem tax to fund the district’s operations. The district—one of 98 GCDs in the state—would in turn have the ability to manage water wells drilled into the Trinity Aquifer, and state law would require all wells to be registered with the Clearwater UWCD.

The tax rate the Clearwater UWCD imposes on its property owners for fiscal year 2024-25 is $0.002373 per $100 valuation. In other words, homes with a valuation of $100,000 would pay $2.37 a year, while homes worth $250,000 would pay $5.93 a year.

Those who have wells used for domestic use or for providing water for livestock on a tract of land greater than 10 acres and pump less than 25,000 gallons of water a day would be exempt from having to acquire an operating permit, meter their wells and report the production of their wells.

Commercial wells, such as those used by sand and gravel mines, rock quarries, municipalities and developers, would not be exempt from these conditions. These types of wells already in place would also need to apply for a historic use permit, which Clearwater UWCD General Manager Dirk Aaron said the district would be obligated to grant.

“We manage [the Trinity Aquifer] in a way that you don’t deny people access to it, but when you become a permit holder—a nonexempt well—they’re metered and they get a prescribed amount [of water],” Aaron said. “Then we also monitor the draw down of those wells.”

In Texas, developers are required to conduct groundwater availability studies when creating subdivisions. Aaron said established GCDs can work with platting entities, such as counties or cities, to review these studies and check whether the land has enough groundwater for projects to continue. However, he added cities and counties with no GCD in the area still go through availability studies through their own planning departments.

The framework

The Rule of Capture—established by the Texas Supreme Court—is the governing principal of Texas groundwater law.

Essentially, the rule means landowners have the right to pump as much water as they want, even at the expense of their neighbor, unless they are doing so maliciously. However, Aaron said areas regulated by a GCD follow a “modified Rule of Capture.”

“[Groundwater conservation districts] are not to deny you water, if [your well is] nonexempt or exempt,” he said. “We’re not to deny that, but we’re to find balance to get you what you need, but not at the expense of your neighbor.”

What they’re saying

Many of the comments made during the Feb. 12 public hearing involved property rights, taxation and having Bell County officials make decisions for residents living in Williamson County.

“If you own your own property right now, you own the water beneath your property. It's yours when you purchase your land; you bought the rights to that water. Now when a GCD comes in, Texas says it can tell you how you can use your water,” area resident Leann Embry said.

“You own the water that’s under your property now, but if your next door neighbor decides to suck it all out, there's nothing you can do about it. It's his now because it's under his property now. We need to do something to get everyone regulated so that nobody takes it all,” Liberty Hill resident Patrick Mehann said.

“This would be something that would impact all businesses and residents in Cedar Park when we don’t use any groundwater; we’re surface water. So putting a tax on the residents and businesses here doesn’t seem right,” said Tom Moline, CEO of the Cedar Park Chamber of Commerce.

“[Williamson County] Judge [Bill] Gravell tried to scare the public against the water district, talking about very high taxes, when it's actually $11.80 for half-a-million-dollar house, and it keeps decreasing. It doesn't keep increasing. I appreciate the fact that when someone under Clearwater drills a well, they go and inspect the well itself,” Liberty Hill resident Regina O’Brien said.

“We’re not opposing a GCD. We are opposing a Bell County GCD in WilCo. It’s a terrible plan. Why would we want outsiders controlling our water? We care more about our water than they do. WilCo is smart enough to do our own thing,” Georgetown resident Joe Savage said.

“Am I worried about representation? That's a man-made, woman-made problem. We can solve that. What we don't want to do is throw people who don't know what they're doing into a position of making decisions, and those are the water districts that fail,” Williamson County Precinct 1 Commissioner Terry Cook said.

Moving forward

Williamson County Commissioners Court declined to support the petition into ACA's territory. The court has also allocated $1 million for an underground water study of the Trinity Aquifer. The study is expected to be done sometime this year, after the court selected LRE Water LLC to conduct the analysis.

Elliston said the ACA will pay close attention to the results of the county’s study. In the meantime, he said the organization is going to look at possibly petitioning other groundwater conservation districts that border Williamson County and pursuing annexations with them.