The Austin Chronicle

The Laws of the Land

Hatfield and McCoy Drama Unfolds Over Aquifer

By Kevin Fullerton, April 24, 1998, News

Bill Couch, manager of Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, is try to fend off efforts to abolish the District.

photograph by Jana Birchum

Shall the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District [BS/EACD] be dissolved? The question, which voters in South Austin and southern Travis County will address on the May 2 ballot, appears to beg a reasoned response to a civic issue - whether or not a local governmental body should manage the Edwards Aquifer water supply. In reality, the proposition has kindled about as much rational debate as a cocked 12-gauge. The petition which forced the item on the ballot is the latest salvo fired by a Reconstruction-era Texas family waging a war of independence against what it perceives as an allied front of government revenuers, lawyers, and environmentalists encroaching on their territory. It doesn't take doppler radar to determine that the Laws family, whose roots run deep in Texas soil, doesn't easily cotton to governmental control of their livelihood, which happens to be that precious commodity - water. But to hear family members tell it, it's not so much the regulatory power they're opposed to but the people who wield it.

At the center of the controversy is BS/EACD general manager Bill Couch, a man who is particularly unwelcome to the Laws and like-minded district constituents. Sitting at a conference table at the District office in far South Austin, Couch studies the petition's signatures of 600 people who hope to toss him out of his job. Next to the petition is a copy of a federal lawsuit filed against the District earlier this month. The suit alleges that the BS/EACD violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide a sufficient number of early voting booths in the Mustang Ridge area for the May 2 election. Couch notes that all of the individuals listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are also listed on the petition to abolish the District. (A federal judge has since thrown out the lawsuit.) There are two names in particular that stand out: One is Charles Laws, manager of the Creedmore-Maha Water Supply Co., and a Mustang Ridge councilmember. The other is Laws' cousin, Alton B. Laws, Jr., the mayor of Mustang Ridge who is also a municipal judge and member of the Creedmore-Maha board. The two sixty-something cousins are leading the fight to dissolve the conservation district.

Charles Laws, water supply company manager opposed to BS/EACD

photograph by Kevin Fullerton

Scanning the list of petitioners, Couch observes that many of the names below the 600 signatures were wrought by the same hand, and he recognizes dozens of Laws family inlaws among the signatures. "But," he muses, "there's nothing illegal about any of that." That's more credit than the Laws are willing to give Couch, or, for that matter, the environmental community in general, which they claim uses the District as a "milk cow" to promote personal interests and keep the District's lobbyists fat and happy. Charles Laws posits as much in the one-room office of the Creedmore-Maha Water Supply Co., which sits atop a hill overlooking the sleepy town - population 600 - which Laws personally incorporated in 1985 when he heard rumors that the Austin annexation machine was headed his way.

Laws proclaims that the Edwards Aquifer doesn't need to be protected by "little Hitlers" who aren't in the water business and who bring outside agendas to the District. "Most of those people are members of the S.O.S., so they're being the sounding board for the S.O.S. posture. We get most of our water from [the aquifer]; it's our livelihood, and we will protect it. We don't want to over-pump it, and we don't want to pollute it." In short, the District serves as a watchdog to protect water quality and it regulates well activity. The District also offers the only conservation plan to protect wells on the shallow western end of the aquifer from being sucked dry during droughts by users on the deeper eastern edge. Asked why only his company, out of the 30 commercial pumpers included in the District, opposes the District, Laws responds that other companies are not aware of what the BS/EACD board is doing. "Some people will fight for their rights, and others won't; if I think I'm right, I'll fight until hell freezes over.... The individual can't fight out here, so we're fighting for the people's rights because we're a group," he says.

At this point, cousin Alton Laws wanders into the office on an errand. Only the day before, he had declined to be interviewed, but he can't resist chiming in with some news. "We've got them, we've got them," Alton declares, thumping a sheaf of papers he's holding. They contain the minutes of a 1991 meeting between S.O.S. Alliance leaders and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. Laws reads aloud from a portion of the minutes, where one S.O.S. member, in an attempt to justify tougher environmental regulations that could make homes more expensive in Lost Creek, asserted that only affluent people would be affected. "Why don't we stop kidding ourselves," the S.O.S. member is quoted as saying, "the poor are never going to be able to afford to live out there, it's only the rich that do, so let's let them pay for the opportunity; if the poor ever did try to move out there, the homeowners' associations would try to stop them immediately."

"By God," Alton Laws concludes, "that's discrimination against poor people, and we need to take this to the [legislators]. Then, calming, he says, "I'm not being adamant about this; we just happen to know too much about those cats. We've got stacks [of documents] about this that would fill up your truck.... There's serious crimes."

"We've done a little homework here," cousin Charles adds.

Longtime Detractors

For years, the Laws have smelled what they consider to be suspicious environmental agendas behind the BS/EACD's operations, and have cried foul about District spending and management on numerous occasions. The accusations are not new to BS/EACD officials. "I don't think I've ever seen one time when they haven't been doing everything they can think of to block the District from doing its job," says Jack Goodman, a District board member for 10 years.

From a historical perspective, the District has been a slight to the Laws ever since Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) proposed in 1985 to set up a conservation zone over the portion of the aquifer west of I-35 - where Creedmore-Maha has excellent, deep wells - and charge a "transportation fee" to any company piping water to the east, where Creedmore-Maha's customers reside. The Laws believed Barrientos was not only cutting off their water, but trying to lower property values so developers could snatch up cheap land. With the help of then-state Rep. Terral Smith, the Laws successfully sought to have Creedmore-Maha's service area included in the District, prevented the District from levying a property tax, and lobbied, unsuccessfully, to cap the pumping fee.

Alton Laws' next move was to challenge the District's authority to collect pumping fees, which he pursued all the way to the state Supreme Court. Unable to upend the District from the outside, Laws then got himself elected to the District's board in 1988, and, together with ally and current board member Don Turner (who at the time managed the Mystic Oaks water cooperative), didn't let a whiff of potential misdoing go unnoticed. As board members, Laws and Turner lobbied the Legislature to cap the District's pumping fees, and brought city and county auditors down upon the District's books.

Couch and other board members have argued that Laws and Turner's preoccupation with curtailing the District's budget were merely self-serving attempts to cheapen pumping costs for Creedmore-Maha. Laws sees it differently: "When you go back and look at the history of the District, at the budget, you're gonna find out that the money went to the bureaucrats' salaries, law firms, and engineers, but damn little for programs."

BS/EACD supporters say the petition to abolish the District is consistent with Laws' long-standing efforts to derail the regulatory agency. According to Goodman, Alton Laws and Turner perpetually cast the losing votes in 3-2 decisions on the five-member board. Then, two years ago, Laws lost his place on the board to Onion Creek resident Roy Dalton, so the Laws family began trying to free Creedmore-Maha from District controls. After the board denied the Laws' request to remove the company's service area from the District, ruling that only voting precincts, not commercial entities, can withdraw from the District, the Laws countered with the recent petition drive to vote the District into oblivion. To force this election, they needed only to collect signatures from 30% of the mere 1,500 souls who voted in the last BS/EACD board election.

Goodman says he hopes the self-serving interests of what he calls a small pocket of troublemakers won't win out at the polls. "I think most folks understand the absolute necessity for some government to protect the Edwards Aquifer associated with Barton Springs. It is, after all, a sole-source drinking water supply for about 45,000 people, so it's not just a discussion about making a swimming hole in Austin; it's absolutely vital to people's existence that that resource be protected."

In principle, however, Turner and the Laws say they do not oppose protecting the aquifer's water - they just don't like the people who are doing it now. "There's got to be a [conservation district] here no matter what," says Turner. "Even if the one was dissolved, it would have to come back under another name or something.... I would try to get a bunch together and get 50 signers and go to the TNRCC [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission] and say this is a critical area, and then we want it set up as a district, and then we want people to vote to put it back together."

In other words, form a new district, with new board members, and no Bill Couch. "He's just a damn crook," Alton Laws says of Couch. "We gonna beat him, too." Couch responds that from the beginning, Alton Laws has focused his attacks on whoever happened to be sitting in the District manager's chair.

Pump up the Jam

The Laws' rebellion against the District has gone beyond a mere exchange of fighting words. When the District eventually raised its fee from 15 cents per thousand gallons to 25 cents, then to 30 cents, the Laws rebelled in a big way. Compiling an inch-thick binder of District financial statements, which would become known as "the red book" in the halls of the Capitol, Alton Laws alleged that the District was misspending the money it already collected. Moreover, Laws said Couch was using District funds to pay for FICA tax he owed on his vehicle, that the District was paying employee parking tickets and a country club membership for Couch, and that board member travel expenses for out-of-state conferences were illegal. Laws also produced copies of checks showing that the District had helped pay for a booklet about Barton Springs published by the Save Barton Creek Association.

According to Barrientos' legislative staff director, Richard Hamner, Alton Laws approached Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria) in 1995 about capping the District's fees. Accompanying Laws were Phil Savoy and T.J. Higginbotham of Take Back Texas, a property rights group, who posed as BS/EACD board members from Hays County. Armbrister initially agreed to amend a MUD bill the senator was sponsoring to set the BS/EACD fee at 17 cents, Hamner says, but later tried to remove the amendment when he learned he'd been duped. But House Natural Resources Committee Vice-Chair Jerry Yost, who was sponsoring the bill in the house, wouldn't agree to any changes. So Barrientos and Armbrister, working with other BS/EACD board members, hammered out an arrangement whereby the pumping fee would be lowered to 17 cents, but Austin's share of the District's budget, which had formerly been 40%, was increased to 60% to compensate for lost revenue.

At the 1997 legislative session, however, Couch and BS/EACD board members persuaded local state Reps. Sherri Greenberg (D-Austin) and Alec Rhodes (D-Dripping Springs) to bring pumping fees back up to 25 cents, claiming that the District could not function with its current revenue. Laws raised a protest among water customers to prevent changing the fee, again wielding the "red book" in House hearings, but legislative aides say that Natural Resources Committee chair Gary Walker told Laws there was insufficient evidence to prove mismanagement. An Austin city audit of the District had come up clean, though Laws contended that the audit had not pursued the "criminal" improprieties. Legislation to increase the BS/EACD fee reached the floor - albeit with provisions directing that new District revenues be spent exclusively on capital improvement projects - but the bill died in Burleson Republican Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth's infamous point-of-order in the last days of the '97 session.

"Creedmore-Maha doesn't have a thing to gain in this fight; the people do," Alton Laws declares. "Efforts to raise rates were a conspiracy, a crime, especially when they take $15,000 of our money to go up there and pay a lobbyist, a law firm - big cat Bickerstaff, Heath, and Smiley, to cut our damn throats," Laws says, referring to the Austin law firm of Bickerstaff-Heath-Smiley-Pollan-Kever & McDaniel.

Despite their accusations of District wrongdoings, though, the Laws seem to be relatively alone in their quest to destroy BS/EACD. An overwhelming majority of aquifer users voted to approve the District in 1987, and it has the endorsement of water companies and rural residents, as well as environmental groups such as Texans for Aquifer Protection. "They claim fiscal mismanagement, they claim bloated budgets, they make all these wild claims," TAP's Jim Camp says of the District's detractors. "They just don't believe in the idea of aquifer protection and enhancement."

In response to the Laws-initiated outcry over the allegations of District misspending, legislators did seek to apply tighter restrictions to District travel expenses during the last session, but very few people suggest the District should be dissolved. Even Turner says he thinks the District is doing a reasonably good job, although he takes credit for having forced BS/EACD to be fiscally responsible.

Plumb Creek Water Company president Glen E. Lewis, Jr., whose company is one of the three largest pumpers over the aquifer, along with Goforth Water Supply and Creedmore-Maha, says he has gradually come around to supporting the District. "Ten years ago, I was very much against the District, feeling it was rammed down our throat by the Legislature," Lewis says. "I lost that feeling a long time ago.... On the whole, I would say I agree with and approve of most of what the District has done." And Goforth manager Mario Tobias adds that the District is well worth the fees it charges, and he has no problem with its objectives.

Wells of Discontent

Water companies and residents say they are becoming increasingly comforted by the presence of the District as news emerges about massive residential and office developments in Hays County, where Mid-Tex Utility, Inc. is proposing to sink a slew of new wells to supply water. Lewis knows firsthand what the stakes are: Mid-Tex purchased a note on his Plumb Creek Water Company and Lewis is having to file Chapter 11 to ward off a hostile takeover. Additionally, Mid-Tex's drilling application to TNRCC shows that the Spillar Ranch development plans to spread treated effluent on spray-irrigated land, which could pose a pollution threat upstream from suburban communities and Barton Springs.

Meanwhile, a groundswell of residents protesting Mid-Tex's proposal have requested that the District be a party to TNRCC hearings on Mid-Tex's permit application. The District has several powers: It can refuse a well permit for any commercial user that cannot prove that a new well will not hydrologically impact neighboring wells, it can mandate how closely wells are spaced, and it can sue to freeze development that may threaten aquifer water quality.

Couch says the District will also be meeting other water quality challenges, such as forcing the Texas Department of Transportation to control runoff as the agency builds the SH45 MoPac extension. Residents of Sunset Valley, whose water turned to mud as their wells were overcome with silt during the construction of the US290 extension, will no doubt be thankful for that.

As for Alton Laws' efforts to subvert the District, not all of his mismanagement claims have fallen on deaf ears. Some residents believe that Couch, who is also the mayor of the City of Hays in Hays County, may well have overstepped his authority on occasion. Paula McKenna, a Hays County resident who was active in removing local subdivisions - Chaparral Park, Autumn Woods, and Southwest Territory - from Austin's extra-territorial jurisdiction, and who attended hearings on raising the District's fees in 1997, says that, while not completely sympathetic toward anti-government "curmudgeons [who] fear bureaucratic control of everything and see a creeping socialist behind every blade of grass," she is not altogether satisfied with Couch's performance. McKenna served on the committee which requested that any new District revenues raised under elevated fees be spent on capital projects, which she claims the District has been slow to complete. Couch has said he never appropriated any spending not approved by District board members.

Alton Laws contends that Couch has set District budgets by calculating how much could be raised through water fees, and then setting salaries and expenditures accordingly. Laws is also indignant that the District spent thousands of dollars on lobbyists to pursue higher pumping fees at the Capitol, which Laws says is turning the people's own money against them. On the other side of the coin, Clay Hodges, the former manager of Goforth Water Supply who fought the fee change along with Turner and Laws, hired lobbyist Ed Small on his own initiative, without approval from the company's board, according to Tobias, the current Goforth manager.

Charles Laws, furthermore, maintains that the passage of SB1 in 1997 gives TNRCC plenty of authority to oversee the aquifer water. But Goodman and Dripping Springs' Rep. Rhodes say the TNRCC has traditionally farmed out such oversight to districts just like BS/EACD. "One of the things I see is there are a lot of people who stand to make a lot of money if pumping is not restricted; of course they would like to be free of those fees," Rhodes says. "Somebody obviously thought it was important to have a district to protect the aquifer water."

Life After the Election

If the District does survive the bond election, it is likely to increase its pumping fees down the line, which is sure to invite further challenges. Even Charles Laws says he has no complaint with the District's current fee, but he says his customers would be very unhappy if the fee goes up to 50 cents, as has been suggested, which would add about $1.65 to his customers' average monthly bill.

Goodman, however, says the residents of Travis and Hays Counties won't be doing themselves any long-term favors by trashing the District wholesale. "I just hope that people understand when they go to the polls and vote that if they were to vote to dissolve that district, they would lose the only government set up specifically to protect the Edwards Aquifer associated with Barton Springs. And if people believe that the Legislature is just going to let a federally designated sole-source drinking water supply for 45,000 people go unregulated, they're dreaming."

Voter Alert: The phrasing of the question on the petition to dissolve the District is (perhaps intentionally) counter-intuitive. A "Yes" vote will actually kill the District, while a "No" vote is required to keep it.

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