Hays Co. commissioners vote against forming water group

For now, Hays County is on its own in trying to solve what county commissioners call "the water problem."

According to Hays County, current water supplies will not be sufficient to meet the county's growing demand for the resource in the coming decades.

On. Nov. 18, Pix Howell, a water consultant who has been contracted by the county since February 2013, presented a plan to create the Central Texas Water Development Corp., a group that would have the authority to plan, develop, coordinate, build or finance water infrastructure in Central Texas.

Travis County and the city of Leander would have voted on joining the organization in late November, but postponed a decision after Hays County declined formation of the group Nov. 18.

The proposal failed after a 2-3 vote in which commissioners Debbie Gonzales-Ingalsbe, Mark Jones and Will Conley voted in opposition and County Judge Bert Cobb and Commissioner Ray Whisenant voted in favor.

Cobb said the partnership is intended to give Hays County a voice in ongoing conversations about water in Central Texas. Counties with greater populations than Hays County—such as Travis, Bexar and Williamson counties—are planning for their growing populations, he said.

Cobb compared discussions about securing water in Central Texas to a game of musical chairs, in which it is easy to lose out to a neighboring community.

"You're either at the table with a seat as part of the discussion, or you're on the menu," Cobb said. "I don't want the people of Hays County to be on the menu."

Howell's proposal would have created a governmental entity known as a utility development corporation, or UDC. Hays County and a collection of other Central Texas entities used the UDC structure in 2012 during a time when the Lower Colorado River Authority was selling off some of its assets including water systems. Howell, Hays County and a collection of other Central Texas cities and counties formed the Coalition of Central Texas Utilities Development Corp., which was able to purchase the part of the LCRA system that eventually became the West Travis County Public Utility Agency. The WTCPUA provides water service to portions of western Hays and Travis counties.

Howell said he believes the proposed corporation's early goals would mostly have consisted of discussions about how much water its members anticipate needing in the future. Other activities in the early going could have included working with legislators to "clean up" some laws, he said.

"I'd love to say we're going to just go and build pipes somewhere, because I think ultimately transmission is the answer to all this," Howell said. "We've got a lot of water resources out there, and they don't mean a thing if you can't move them from point A to point B."

Conversations about delivery of water are still far off, though, Howell said.

Hays County commissioners learned late last year that just because water contracts are signed, hurdles can still remain. The county's contract with Forestar Real Estate for the delivery of 45,000 acre-feet of water annually was signed in September 2013. That deal is stuck in courts after the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District—the entity responsible for permitting water rights in Lee County, where the water was to come from—denied Forestar's request for the rights to pump the water.

Howell estimated there are about 10 other entities interested in joining the proposed corporation, including cities, counties, utilities and private investors. Conley said that point gave him pause. The composition of the UDC could determine whether the entities' powers are used for good or bad, he said.

"That's what gives me concern and has me questioning what we're doing, and have we gone through the right steps and processes to ensure that we're doing the right thing?" Conley said. "I know we're doing it for the right reasons, but is it the right path?"

Conley suggested the county work toward a specific project, and when those details are clear, to consider creation of a corporation like the one Howell proposed.

"That would be very specific, and people would have a good idea of what we're doing and why we're forming a corporation to address a very specific issue," Conley said. "Instead, what's being proposed is the creation of a corporation with broad authorities to see what occurs and what happens as we move down the road."

Howell said he plans to follow up with the court on the proposal after commissioners have had more time to familiarize themselves with it.

Long-term outlook

Cobb said recent efforts to bring water to Hays County—including the Hays Caldwell Public Utility Agency, which plans to bring 27 million gallons of water daily from a portion of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to Hays County by 2050—have not amounted to anything.

"[The HCPUA] is no closer to bringing water to Hays County than they were 10 years ago," he said. "We don't have 10 more years to clown around."

HCPUA General Manager Graham Moore disagreed, saying the agency is still on track to meet its original goal, and he estimated Carrizo-Wilcox water could be arriving in Hays County as early as 2023. The organization recently opened two test wells in Caldwell County to learn more about the area's water. In January, the agency will also start the design process of a pipeline to connect Kyle and Buda. The pipeline would allow Kyle to sell excess water to Buda to help meet the smaller city's growing demand for the resource.

"We started the efforts early knowing that it was going to take a long time to develop the permits and to develop the infrastructure necessary," he said. "So I think we're right on track with what we've always intended to do."
By Brett Thorne
Brett Thorne reported on education, business, economic development and city government in San Marcos, Kyle and Buda from 2012 to 2017. Thorne attended Texas State University in San Marcos, where he graduated in 2010. He joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in 2012 and was promoted to editor in 2013.


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