Lawmakers hold hearing on groundwater bill affecting Hays County

The House Committee on Natural Resources held a public hearing Wednesday on a variety of bills, including HB 4122, which could affect groundwater in Hays County.

The House Committee on Natural Resources held a public hearing Wednesday on a variety of bills, including HB 4122, which could affect groundwater in Hays County.

Elected officials and Hays County residents gathered at the Texas Capitol on Wednesday for a public hearing on a groundwater regulation bill.

House Bill 4122 would allow owners of properties consisting of at least 1,000 acres and included in two or more groundwater conservation districts to choose which district they want their property to be subject to.

Hays County officials and residents voiced concern the bill could weaken oversight of groundwater in an environmentally sensitive portion of Hays County and said they suspect the bill was drafted to benefit the owner of a 5,000-acre property west of San Marcos.

The Needmore Ranch, located near the Saddleridge neighborhood just outside the jurisdiction of the city of Wimberley, has applied to the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District for the right to pump 289.08 million gallons of water per year from the Trinity Aquifer. If HB 4122 is adopted into law, the bill would allow the owner of the property to bring the groundwater under the oversight of the Hays-Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which has less ability to regulate pumping than the Barton Springs district.

Sharon Amos, who lives in the Saddleridge neighborhood near the Needmore Ranch’s well, said that during a test of the well in January 2016, the depth of her own well dropped 13 feet. After 10 days the water level had recovered only 10 feet. She and other residents voiced concern that the pumping proposed by the Needmore Ranch could negatively affect their wells.

“We simply cannot let one landowner supersede the public interest in our groundwater resources or the private property rights of landowners throughout the area who depend on it as well,” said Vanessa Puig-Williams, executive director and general counsel for the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, said the legislation is aimed at clearing up regulatory issues related to properties under the jurisdiction of two groundwater conservation districts.

“Groundwater districts are often drawn on arbitrary or, often, political lines, and in many cases around the state these lines divide the same aquifer,” Kacal said at the hearing Wednesday. “As an example, a landowner can control one piece of continuous property on a single aquifer and yet can be divided between two groundwater regulatory bodies that permit and grant access to groundwater in [completely] different fashions.”

C.E. Williams, general manager of the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District, said the legislation solves a problem.

“With a few amendments, I think this could really be something that could help some of the chatter we hear out there, ‘I’m in two or three districts,’” Williams said.

Kacal said under the current system a property owner could be required to obtain an export permit to transport water within their own property if they are located in two groundwater districts.

Kacal said the regulatory hurdles presented by current groundwater regulations amount to a "major violation of property rights."

“Private property rights come in on both sides of this issue,” Hays County Commissioner Will Conley said at the hearing. “A man has a right to his property, but you don’t have a right to do [something] to do the detriment of your neighbor, stealing their values and their rights, either.”

The senate version of HB 4122, Senate Bill 1814, was authored by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Greg LaMantia, owner of the Needmore Ranch, has been a long-time supporter of Hinojosa.

According to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis of campaign finance reports, Hinojosa has received $92,500 in political donations from LaMantia, his family and his business associates since 2012.

The Hays-Trinity Groundwater Conservation District passed a resolution opposing the HB 4122 and SB 1814 on March 22.

The resolution states that the district's board of directors urges Hinojosa and Kacal "to work with groundwater conservation districts toward achieving the goals of protecting groundwater resources and private property rights without providing special privileges to certain landowners."

Needmore’s wells are located within an area designated as a priority groundwater management area by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Water Development Board and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The designation is given to areas that are experiencing or are expected to experience a critical shortage of water, land subsidence due to groundwater withdrawal or contamination of groundwater supplies within the next 50 years.

In order to be signed into law, the bill will have to pass out of committee, be approved on the House floor and go through the same process in the Senate. The bill is currently pending in committee.