In Wake of Flooding, Hays Water Victory Bittersweet

Last-minute reversal revives groundwater protection bill

Rep. Jason Isaac (photo by John Anderson)

Surviving attacks from outside the region, Hays County water advocates were victorious in the last hours of the legislative session: House Bill 3405, the bill that gives Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District the authority to regulate the currently unregulated "white zone" of the Trinity Aquifer, passed both the House and Senate. Unless Gov. Greg Abbott chooses to veto the bill, it will become law.

Advocates spent the first half of this year fighting to get the white zone regulated, and to make sure the Trinity Aquifer is protected from overpumping. They became concerned when they learned that the Houston-based company Electro Purification planned to pump more than 5 million gallons of water a day from the aquifer to sell to cities along the I-35 corridor.

"Now the work begins," said BSEACD General Manager John Dupnik. Within 90 days after the bill becomes law, the district will need to let well owners who are operating in the newly regulated area know they need to apply for a temporary permit. The temporary permit allows them to continue operations without much scrutiny during the interim period. BSEACD will use the 90 days to scrutinize pumping volumes and hold public hearings before the BSEACD board makes the final decisions on permits. The district can limit production volume if it would result in failure to achieve a desired future condition for the aquifer, or if it would cause projected unreasonable impact on existing wells.

During the same period, the district will need to develop monitoring wells in the area, and continue the technical evaluation of the Middle Trinity in the vicinity of the EP well field. Dupnik said, "That's been a purely scientific endeavor to start collecting baseline data on the aquifer in that area such that we can compare it later to the effects of a pump test, or even further down the road, how drought conditions have an effect on things."

Author Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, and Senate sponsor Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, had to fight opposition to the bill from outside the region – Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, who both expressed concern about the bill setting a precedent that would affect the rest of the state.

Isaac said he suspects there were people behind the scenes working against the bill as well. "I just think there are some people who were working against us who have purely financial motivations and no desire to protect our groundwater or to protect all the citizens of Hays County," he said.

The drama escalated when González raised a point of order asking whether a House rule had been violated that would kill the bill; it was later sustained. "When midnight passed, I knew it was too late to get it fixed," Isaac said. "I knew we had a one-in-a-million shot to actually get something done." He called the Hays County water advocates and told them it looked like the bill was dead, but he wasn't giving up.

The next day, a last-minute reprieve caught everyone by surprise. The parliamentarian announced a reversal of the previous night's point-of-order ruling. It then moved to a House-Senate conference committee and saw eventual approval from both chambers. Isaac said he was exhausted from the fight and shocked by the turn of events. "That announcement, when it came down, I broke down in complete shock, I mean absolute shock. I don't think anything has ever happened to me like that in my life before."

The last fight for HB 3405 came just as Hays County citizens were immersed in the aftermath of the Memorial Day flood, grieving losses and starting cleanup and relief efforts. Louie Bond, Rolling Oaks resident and water advocate, said the community celebration of the victory will be low-key, and for her, it's bittersweet. "I think it's heartening to know that the voice of the people can still be heard. But there were points in the process where it was overruled by one or two powerful people, and that concerns me about our system in general," she said. "So far it's a tough war where we've won this battle, and that helps us have a positive outlook for the rest of this war. And it is a war."

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John Dupnik, Sen. Donna Campbell, Sen. Charles Perry, Memorial Day flood, Rep. Mary González, 84th Texas Legislature, HB 3405, Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, Trinity Aquifer, Electro Purification, Rep. Jason Isaac, Hays County

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