Updated 10:45 a.m. Jan. 25: This story has been updated to include information from the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District’s news release detailing the terms of the settlement agreement.
During its Jan. 24 meeting, Conroe City Council unanimously approved a settlement agreement in a lawsuit between the city and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District over groundwater usage and fees.
The settlement comes after visiting Judge Lamar McCorkle ruled in mid-September the LSGCD does not have legal authority to force large-volume users to reduce annual groundwater use. The district filed an appeal to the ruling Nov. 7, according to LSGCD board minutes.
During the meeting, Conroe City Attorney Marc Winberry said the terms of the settlement agreement include the LSGCD dismissing its appeal of the trial court ruling. Moreover, Winberry said there are still various remaining plaintiffs in the lawsuit that have a variety of pending claims; however, he said all parties have agreed to dismiss the “minor” claims—thus effectively putting an end to the lawsuit.
“That will of course open the door to a new series of rule-making by the Lone Star district. Obviously with the main rule gone, it will now be necessary for them to come back and revamp their rules,” Winberry said. “This settlement agreement does not address how things go in the future, but of course our City Council, I’m sure, will want to actively and proactively participate in that rule-making process, as I’m sure all of the other plaintiffs to that lawsuit will. But the staff recommendation today is to approve this proposed settlement agreement that will be a major milestone in your struggle against these regulations.”
The lawsuit has been ongoing since 2015, when the city of Conroe and seven other utility stakeholders filed a lawsuit against the LSGCD in 2015 over the district’s regulations of groundwater usage. According to court documents from the 284th Judicial District, the seven other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Quadvest, Woodland Oaks Utility, Crystal Springs Water Co., Everett Square Inc., E.S. Water Consolidators, Utilities Investment Co. and T&W Water Service Company.
In 2006, the LSGCD board adopted a long-term planning mandate requiring all large-volume groundwater users in Montgomery County—including Conroe—to reduce groundwater use to 70 percent of their 2009 totals by January 2016. This was done to manage aquifer water levels and pressure, according to LSGCD officials.
During a special meeting Jan. 22, the newly elected LSGCD board approved a motion to dismiss the appeal and enter into a settlement agreement with the city of Conroe and other plaintiffs, pending signatures from all plaintiffs in the case. According to Jan. 25 news release from the LSGCD, the board of directors, the city of Conroe and the other utility companies have all officially approved the settlement agreement.
“The agreement was reached after extensive negotiations with the city and utilities, and was based on a desire to end the risk, disruption, and expense being incurred by all parties,” the release stated.
The release also stated that the settlement agreement will result in dismissal of the LSGCD’s appeal as well as a final judgement from the district court litigation declaring the large-volume groundwater user rule void and unenforceable.
“When the final judgment takes effect, the [large-volume groundwater user] rule will become void and unenforceable and shall be stricken from the district’s rules, regulatory plan and the [large-volume groundwater user] permits that recite the regulation,” the statement read. “The district will send notice to the [large-volume groundwater user] permit holders of the forthcoming modification to its permits and that all other provisions and conditions in those permits will remain valid and effective.”
For more background on the lawsuit, check out Community Impact Newspaper’s story from the January edition.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available. Additional reporting by Jules Rogers.