Hays County officials are concerned recent legislation filed at the state Capitol could put groundwater oversight within the county at risk for the second time in as many legislative sessions.
In 2015, Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, authored legislation that brought an unregulated area of Hays County groundwater under regulation. Now Isaac and Hays County officials are gearing up for a fight against bills that would potentially ease or remove restrictions on pumping water from the Trinity Aquifer, the same aquifer that was targeted for pumping in 2015.
“I’m incredibly disappointed that a few of my colleagues are playing games with the citizens of Hays County and attempting to undo the important groundwater protections that were passed last session for their own political gain,” Isaac said in a news release.
Senate Bill 1814 would allow landowners whose property is larger than 1,000 acres and located within the territory of at least two groundwater conservation districts to petition to have one of the districts cede its authority over the property within its jurisdiction to the other district. The bill was filed by State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. The House version, House Bill 4122, was authored by Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station.
At a hearing April 5, Kacal and other witnesses said the bill seeks to address confusion that arises from large properties within the jurisdiction of multiple groundwater conservation districts.
John Dupnik, general manager of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, the entity responsible for regulating groundwater in much of north central Hays County, said the bill would allow a property owner to “shop around for the groundwater district that is most beneficial to their interests.”
That is particularly concerning, Dupnik said, because a property located within the jurisdiction of the Barton Springs district and the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District could petition to have itself removed from the more restrictive Barton Springs district and brought entirely into the Hays Trinity district, which, by statute, has less ability to control groundwater pumping than other districts.
During the April 5 hearing, witnesses testified that the potential easing of groundwater restrictions in Hays County could have dire consequences for the environment and county residents who depend on wells to draw water at their residences.
“We are three or four bad decisions away from putting over half our county in a very, very desperate situation,” Hays County Commissioner Will Conley said at the hearing. “We are extremely sensitive about any groundwater legislation. We want to know more, and we want to be part of the solution.”
At the hearing, witnesses voiced concern that Hinojosa’s Senate Bill 1814 would ease groundwater regulations on a 5,000-acre ranch west of San Marcos that is the subject of another bill: SB 2254. That bill, which was also authored by Hinojosa, would give the property the powers of a groundwater conservation district.
The property, known as the Needmore Ranch, would “self-regulate their own production through groundwater conservation district powers that would be provided to the [property] through the bill,” Dupnik said.
“We simply cannot let one landowner supersede the public interest in our groundwater resources or the private-property rights of other landowners throughout the area who depend on it as well,” said Vanessa Puig Williams, executive director for the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association, an organization advocating for protection of the Trinity Aquifer.
The ranch has essentially been primed for development, but as Conley said, “You don’t have any value to your land if you don’t have any water.”
The Needmore MUD
In 2013, the Needmore Ranch was granted the powers of a municipal utility district—including the ability to levy taxes within its territory to fund infrastructure—by the Texas Legislature. The district aims to “maintain and enhance the economic health and vitality of the territory in the district as a residential community and business center,” according to the legislation that created it in 2013. To date, the property has been used for agricultural purposes, said Ed McCarthy, an attorney representing the Needmore Ranch.
“The only people talking about residential development are the fear-mongers,” McCarthy said. “There is no current plan for residential development.”
The owner of the Needmore property has applied to the Barton Springs district for a permit that would allow it to pump up to 289.08 million gallons of water per year to be pumped by the property from the Trinity Aquifer for agricultural purposes. That permit application has been contested by a property owner, and in January it was sent to the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings, which is responsible for conducting hearings for state agencies.
Sharon Amos, who lives near the Needmore Ranch, said her well was involved in a test that gauged the effect the ranch’s proposed pumping would have on nearby wells. During the pumping test in January 2016, the depth of water in her well dropped 13 feet. Two weeks after the test it had only recovered 10 feet, she said.
If the Needmore property owner ever sought a permit to pump water for residential purposes, he would be required to go through another application process. If SB 2254 is signed into law, that would not be the case.
The owner of the Needmore Ranch, Greg LaMantia, owns an Anheuser-Busch beer distribution company based in McAllen. According to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis of campaign finance reports, since 2012, LaMantia, his family and associates have given $92,500 in campaign contributions to Hinojosa.
On March 28, the Hays County Commissioners Court approved a contract with Davis Kaufman PLLC, a Wimberley-based law firm to monitor legislation that could potentially affect Hays County. County officials said they are hopeful the firm will help them fight bills filed in March that could threaten western Hays County’s groundwater supply.
“It really amazes me that we have legislators that are not associated with this area that are way in the Valley or West Texas that get involved in Hays County’s efforts and dealings or water or issues that wouldn’t ordinarily pertain to them,” Hays County Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe said at the March 28 meeting. “Unfortunately … the times have changed.”