The Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, covering Bastrop and Lee counties, is ground zero for a uniquely Texan drama. It is a drama about life and death – life and death of an aquifer, life and death of a regional economy and life and death of a way of life. The leading players are: Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District made up of 10 appointed volunteers charged with conserving Lee and Bastrop counties’ groundwater, local farmers struggling after drought and the massive Bastrop Complex fire in 2011, community and environmental organizations (Environmental Stewardship, Neighbors for Neighbors, GUARD, Sierra Club), county and city government; a local water coop, Aqua Water Supply; water marketers seeking profits as the middlemen for moving large quantities of groundwater to the IH-35 growth corridor; and State Representative Tim Kleinschmidt, who leased his own water rights now owned by Forestar Real Estate Group.
Independent Texans, a citizen-based political action committee for non-aligned voters, helped sound the alarm bringing out hundreds of landowners and residents to two back-to-back hearings held last week in the small town of Giddings. Testimonials from scores of residents focused on the future value of their land in the face of over-permitting the Simsboro formation within the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer.
The result of these hearings was a temporary delay in the vote to approve or deny permit applications for approximately 110,000 acre-feet per year (about 98,000,000 gallons per day) by the Lost Pines GCD Board. Aqua Water Supply surprised the crowd by filing for a contested case hearing to mitigate the potential damage to their own wells in Bastrop and Lee counties. The hearing is scheduled for May 15th, 5 pm in Bastrop, location TBA, just hours before Lost Pines GCD holds its regular monthly meeting.
The LPCGD General Manager Joe Cooper urged the approval of three permit applications; Forestar Real Estate Group (45,000 acre-feet), former Williamson County Commissioner Frankie Limmer’s End Op LLC (56,000 acre-feet) and 10,000 acre-feet for the LCRA. Cooper, long respected by local residents as reasoned voice for groundwater protection, despite the impassioned pleas of residents and landowners, recommended the Lost Pines GCD grant the permits and “see what happens,” then cut back those permits if any harm is proven.
Jimmy Gaines, President of Texas Landowners Council said, “The situation in the Lost Pines district illustrates the need for HB 3250 pending in the Natural Resources Committee in the Texas House. The people of Lee and Bastrop counties do not want their aquifer drained, but the law governing groundwater districts in Texas have no provision requiring districts to prevent draining and does require permits to be issued. HB 3250 would make groundwater districts accountable for allowing over pumping and require them to reduce pumping when it has a disproportionate affect on portions of an aquifer. Chapter 36 Water Code has been rewritten over a period of years to facilitate draining aquifers to temporarily meet the state demand for water. We must pass HB 3250 to require districts to ‘preserve and conserve’ aquifers as the state constitution requires.”
Bill Graham owns land in Milam County one of two counties (along with Burleson) covered by the Post Oak Savannah GCD adjacent to the Lost Pines GCD. Graham has tried to no avail to get the Post Oak Savannah GCD to stop over-permitting (twice the availability) the same aquifer in dispute before the Lost Pines GCD. Graham said, “When I was approached by water marketers for my water rights and I told them no, they threatened to pump my water anyway by getting my neighbors to lease. Well, I showed them – I lobbied for the Groundwater Conservation Districts who are now pumping my water anyway. Sorry!”
The legislature hasn’t yet made up its mind about funding the “water bank” passed by a small margin of statewide voters in 2011. The water bank would fund a variety of water infrastructure projects, including pipelines to move groundwater. Legislators are grappling with whether to take $2 billion for water projects from the Rainy Day Fund, or to put it up for a public vote in November 2013. Senator Troy Fraser also wants to change the governance of the Texas Water Development Board to paid appointees by the Governor, raising fears about more cronyism in state water policy. An alliance between municipal governments, water marketers, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and corporate agricultural interests through the Texas Farm Bureau, has left out many small farmers and landowners. These are our local food growers who represent thousands of jobs in Texas that will be lost in the wake of the folly of building infrastructure before all is done to conserve water in the middle of a historic drought.
Linda Curtis of Independent Texans said, “Citizens are being asked to flood the legislature with calls to protect our aquifers and to move HB 3250 out of committee. There’s a reason the water marketers, instead, are pushing HB 1796. The water marketers, unethical business people that they are, are attempting to establish a monopoly on the fast becoming most valuable resource in Texas – groundwater – by establishing a permanent and automatic permit renewal process for the big pumpers. If they pull that off in this legislative session, we have to make the legislators pay hell in upcoming elections. That was a critical piece that many forget in taking down the Trans-Texas Corridor just four short years ago.”
The water war in Lee and Bastrop County was thrust into the 2010 election cycle after Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt walked out of a well-attended water forum sponsored by Aqua Water Supply in the summer of 2010. Rep. Kleinschmidt was confronted at this forum by Linda Curtis as doing little to protect the aquifer serving Lee and Bastrop counties. Just before his exit, Kleinschmidt responded saying, “The legislature is going to be too busy with the budget to address water.” Over thirty water bills were introduced in that session (2011), including SB 332, which passed. The problem with SB 332, in the eyes of Texas landowners and residents, is it perpetuates “historic use” – which rewards corporate agricultural interests who have superior and perpetual rights to pump. They and Texas municipalities are the biggest water wasters. The good news is that millions of municipal customers are already practicing conservation and are willing to do more.
The water war is to be continued in Bastrop on May 15th. Independent Texans is happy to provide contact information to speak to landowners and residents of Bastrop and Lee counties.