Friday, November 21, 2014
Land Trust Alliance
Thursday, November 20, 2014
19 Nov 2014
By Sean Collins Walsh firstname.lastname@example.org
Regional Water Group Plan Runs Dry
The Hays County Commissioners Court on Tuesday defeated a proposal to establish the Central Texas Water Development Corp., a governmental entity that would have attempted to recruit regional actors in the hopes of building a water pipeline to growing counties.
After the 3-2 vote, County Judge Bert Cobb, who championed the measure, said he didn’t see the defeat coming and that he was “disappointed” in the court. “Politics is a contact sport,” he said. “Nobody has any solutions. They only have negativity.” Cobb singled out Commissioner Will Conley, who gave a speech criticizing the plan before the vote. Conley said the task of developing water sources could be accomplished by an existing entity that has credibility in the Legislature and that the proposal lacked important details, such as where its initial funding would come from.
“I think it’s quite a fantasy to think you can create an organization within the next two months and that you can walk into the Legislature with any sense of credibility,” Conley said. To Cobb’s criticism, Conley said he understands the judge is “passionate” about the issue of water security. “I think when he takes a deep breath and calms down, he’ll realize that we’re not opposed to his goal,” he said. “We just want to be smart and strategic.”
Commissioners Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe and Mark Jones also voted no, saying they didn’t have enough information about the proposal. Cobb said he hasn’t decided whether he would try to raise the issue again anytime soon. Travis County and Leander were expected to join the initial board of the water development corporation. Following the Hays decision, the Travis County commissioners tabled the measure Tuesday, and the Leander City Council is expected to do the same Thursday.
The original goal for the corporation was to bring together counties and cities across the region to build a public pipeline carrying water from sparsely populated areas with ample supplies, said Pix Howell, a consultant who helped create the proposal. But the group failed to recruit the water-rich jurisdictions — such as Bastrop, Lee and Burleson counties — and the goal shifted to starting a conversation on Central Texas’ water needs, educating potential members about water opportunities and lobbying the Legislature.
“What became apparent is everybody had a completely different idea of what was necessary,” said Howell, who received a $25,000 retainer from the county to develop the plan. “If you could identify how you put a regional system together, something that’s controlled by the public but can have lots of private investment, at least then there’s an honest broker.”
Lee County Judge Paul Fischer said Tuesday that he “did not feel comfortable” with the proposed organization because he fears building a pipeline could result in over pumping as such counties as Hays, Travis and Williamson continue to grow and deplete their own water sources. “We don’t mind sharing water, but we need to do it slowly,” Fischer said. “We could have 15 straws down there bringing the water up and shipping it out.”
The Hays commissioners this year voted to buy water rights in Lee and Bastrop counties from the Austin firm Forestar, but so far there is no way to get that water to Hays County. Conley was the lone dissenting vote on that deal.
Tuesday’s defeat in Hays County comes two weeks after the San Antonio City Council approved a $3.4 billion private pipeline to carry water from Burleson County. Cobb said Monday that Hays County might approach the San Antonio Water System about attaching to its pipeline, which goes through Hays County, to bring in the Forestar water. “We don’t have to have a whole lot of gas; we can ride horses. But we’ve got to have water,” Cobb said in court Tuesday. “We have to provide certain things.”
#1 The Hays County/Forestar Agreement
We have all heard "Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting."This comes from the history of the Western states when water was so obviously the lifeblood of ranching and farming, and rules were few and far between. Water rules and laws are now in place, but water is still our region's lifeblood, and the water tug-of-wars continue.
CARD sponsored a "Water Crisis" Community Meeting on September 11th this year to give the big picture about water issues locally and across Texas, along with useful information for personal water use. Feedback from the meeting indicated that people are eager to learn more about water issues, especially local issues. This is the first of a series of CARDtalks on topics that are current and relevant to our area.
The Hays County/Forestar Groundwater Reservation and Purchase Agreement
Hydrogeologists - who study underground water specifically - have known for many years that the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer that lies east of IH 35 in Burleson, Lee, Bastrop, Caldwell, and Gonzales counties, has a large amount of untapped groundwater. Private water marketers, anticipating a future desire for new sources of water in growing Central Texas, approached landowners in those counties and secured leases to pump groundwater. These leases would be subject only to reasonable regulation by the local groundwater conservation districts that issue permits for pumping.
Explosive growth is expected in our area, South Central Texas, over the next few decades. Population projections show this region passing 3 million inhabitants by 2020, and going over 4.3 million by 2050.* On April 24, 2013, the Hays County Commissioners Court embarked on an ambitious plan to secure "new water" to meet the future demands of growth. Hays County initially developed a "Request for Proposals" asking potential water suppliers to submit proposals for providing 25,000-50,000 acre-feet of water per year to Hays County. An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons. The only responder to the Hays County request was Forestar Real Estate, an Austin-based water marketer. Forestar had purchased water rights in Lee County about 65 miles east of Hays County and proposed to develop a well field to pump 45,000 acre-feet (14.6 billion gallons) of groundwater each year and sell that water to Hays County.
Hays County accepted the Forestar proposal and negotiated a Groundwater Reservation and Purchase Agreement that was approved by the Commissioners Court on Oct. 1, 2013. This agreement was subject to an opinion from the Texas Attorney General assuring Hays County that it had legal authority to proceed with the agreement. The AG declined to issue an opinion. However, the Hays Commissioners Court proceeded anyway, following the legal opinion of its staff attorney.
Meanwhile, the Bastrop/Lee County area Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District has permitted only 12,000 acre-feet (about 3.9 billion gallons) a year to Forestar. Lost Pines believes, based on its hydrologic studies, that any pumping by Forestar greater than the 12,000 acre-feet per year will deplete the aquifer over the long run. Forestar is now suing the District and its individual directors to get the full amount requested - 45,000 acre-feet per year.
The Hays-Forestar agreement, as finally amended and approved by the Commissioners Court on May 13, 2014 by a 4-1 vote, requires Hays County to pay Forestar $1,000,000 for year 2013 (already paid) and $400,000 in subsequent years to reserve permitted (12,000 acre-feet) and unpermitted (33,000 acre-feet) groundwater. The current agreement anticipates that the $400,000 reservation fee will be paid for five years or until pumping and purchase of water actually begins. The $400,000 reservation fee is just an option fee and does not reduce the cost of any water that Hays County may ultimately purchase.
Currently Hays County has no customers for this water, and the payment to Forestar is coming from general tax revenues, not from utility customers. This means that Hays County taxpayers will be paying two bills for water: one to Forestar (from taxes paid into the Hays County general fund) and one to their present water supplier or - if they don't have a water supplier - what they pay to build and maintain their private well or rainwater collection system. Therefore, Hays County taxpayers will see no benefit from the Forestar water reservation agreement.
What is essential to understand is that if Hays County, in some future year, actually gets the water, there would be a far greater additional price for delivering the water. The County, or some other entity, would have to build a large pipeline approximately 65 miles long to deliver the water to Hays County water customers. The cost of this pipeline would likely exceed $300 million for construction, plus additional and ongoing operating expenses.
In a separate but related exercise, Hays County Judge Bert Cobb has held a series of meetings with officials of other counties seeking partners in this Hays County water enterprise. He wants to create a "Utility Development Corporation" (UDC) in partnership with several other counties and develop a plan and agreement for utilization of this Hays County reserved water. So far, no other county or entity has agreed to join with Hays County to form the UDC. (There is yet another development - A recently-disclosed proposal on the November 18th Hays County Commissioners Court agenda would have allowed the creation of a "Central Texas Water Development Corporation." The proposal failed, 3-2.)
All of which makes this plan an expensive "wait and see" proposition for the Hays County Commissioners Court.
Hays County citizens should be aware that enterprises such as this could dramatically increase the cost of water and burden the water system's owners and customers with large long-term debt and operating costs. CARD believes that the Commissioners Court, in coordination with other area governments and water purveyors,should develop a Regional Water Plan that shows the public the real costs of such new water supplies and also shows whether the impacts it will have on the Hill Country and its aquifers are sustainable.
CARD also believes that any groundwater pumping in central Texas must be done on a sustainable basis. That means the amount of groundwater withdrawn from the aquifer does not exceed the amount of recharge of the aquifer based on the best science available.
*State Regional Water Plan for 2016, Region L
CARD Steering Committee
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Networking Dinner Announced!Join us for our 2015 Networking Dinner at Matt's El Rancho in South Austin on Thursday, March 5th! The Networking Dinner is complimentary for all full-conference attendees, and guest tickets can be purchased for $35.00.
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Next Steps for San Antonio’s Vista Ridge Project By Tyson Broad
This blog was written with the assistance of Amy Hardberger, Assistant Professor of Law at St. Mary’s University Last week, the San Antonio City Council unanimously voted to move forward with the Vista Ridge Project that plans to bring 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater from Burleson County to the city. Because of our many concerns with this project, the vote was a disappointment, but last Thursday’s Council deliberation did stir some positives worth discussing.
Edwards Aquifer Protection
Environmental groups have been publicly criticized for opposing the Vista Ridge project. Project supporters argue environmentalists should support the project reasoning the additional water will reduce pumping on the Edwards Aquifer. Indeed, it does seem that initially the water from Vista Ridge could help reduce pumping on the Edwards. But the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has made no written commitment to reducing pumping from the Edwards once Vista Ridge comes on-line.
And what happens down the road?
Pumping 50,000 acre-feet from aquifers in Burleson County is not sustainable. Groundwater models have shown that this amount of pumping will result in over 300 feet of drawdown in water levels. San Antonio is not worried about this because the Vista Ridge partners are assuming the risk of groundwater cutbacks and San Antonio only has to pay for the volume of water actually delivered.
But San Antonio should be worried. SAWS assumes ownership of the pipeline to Burleson County in 30 years, as well as a right to renew the groundwater leases. Only, what happens if there is not enough water? San Antonio is relying on the water for growth. If that volume of water is not available after in the future– which it won’t be – San Antonio is going to return to fully pumping from the Edwards and seek yet another water supply costing billions of dollars.
Conservation and Land Use
Another aspect of this project that created concerns for environmentalists is that the influx of water could deter SAWS from continuing to maximize conservation efforts. Several council members asked SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente to pledge a continued commitment to a strong water conservation program. Mr. Puente assured them that as long as he was President, he would continue such a commitment. Mr. Puente also noted that the 2012 SAWS Water Management Plan (WMP) calls for 16,000 acre-feet of water supply to come from water conservation by 2020.
That sounds great, but as council members Ron Nirenberg and Shirley Gonzales noted, that is just a promise and we should rely on the city to make good on it. Indeed, vigilance over the SAWS Water Conservation Plan is critical. Why? Because 1) SAWS’s 2012 WMP makes no commitment to water conservation past 2020; and 2) the public perception of some is that SAWS has already exhausted its opportunity for water savings from conservation. Councilman Saldana colorfully noted this when he stated that SAWS has ‘cut to the bone on using that tool’.
Even though SAWS’ has made great strides on conservation, there is much more left to do. New water conservation programs have shifted from reducing indoor savings to reducing outdoor water use by offering landscape coupons and irrigation rebates and consultations. As outdoor water use accounts for up to 50% SAWS’ water summer usage, water savings from these programs can reap significant savings. Demand-reduction programs need to continue and SAWS should commit to maintaining the amount it spends per customer on these programs.
In addition to SAWS’ President, Council also made commitments towards water conservation. One fact the Vista Ridge discussion highlighted was that all growth is not created equal and while SAWS is responsible for conservation programs, they can’t do everything. The city needs to manage growth to ensure the sustainability of existing water resources.
Specifically, Mayor Ivy Taylor expressed an interest in examining current land use ordinances to assist in water protection. This is critical for two reasons. First, much of the new development in San Antonio is over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge zone. Not only do these new developments use more water, they threaten the recharge and water quality of the Edwards. Second, the landscaping of these new homes defines the size of its water footprint. Xericaped lawns without irrigation systems have a much different impact than lawns with large lots of irrigated turf grass. This is where the city can and should play a role. Limitations on the amount of turf, particularly in the front lawns, as well as requiring that irrigation systems can only be installed after-market with proper inspection would help control the water demands of new homes while still ensuring their appeal.
Buying water from Vista Ridge should mark the beginning of a public recommitment to water conservation and aquifer protection in San Antonio. SAWS, City Council, and the citizens of San Antonio should work together to put ordinances in place that redefine this commitment.