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Bastrop County judge asks governor to veto 'dangerous' groundwater bill

Austin American-Statesmen logo Austin American-Statesmen 6/5/2019 By Brandon Mulder, Austin American-Statesman
a person sitting on a bench: Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott urging him to veto HB 1806, which would allow the San Antonio Water System to sell up to 6,000 acre feet of groundwater pumped from the Edwards Aquifer to wholesale customers outside of its service area. © FILE - MARY HUBER/BASTROP ADVERT/Austin American-Statesman/TNS Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott urging him to veto HB 1806, which would allow the San Antonio Water System to sell up to 6,000 acre feet of groundwater pumped from the Edwards Aquifer to wholesale customers outside of its service area.

June 05--A groundwater bill that is awaiting the governor's signature before being promulgated into law has drawn the criticism of Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape, who says the proposed law would set a "dangerous precedent for groundwater transfers."

Last week, Pape sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott urging him to veto HB 1806, which would allow the San Antonio Water System to sell up to 6,000 acre feet of groundwater pumped from the Edwards Aquifer to wholesale customers outside of its service area, particularly the fast-growing counties north of San Antonio. State law currently does not allow for water pumped from within the region governed by the Edwards Aquifer Authority -- which is composed primarily of Uvalde, Medina, Bexar, Comal and Hays counties -- to move outside its territory.

But that prohibition would change under the bill sponsored by Rep. Tracy King, D-Uvalde, and allow SAWS to provide water to a development in Kendall County. King also stressed that the usage of the groundwater in the area would give SAWS an opportunity to access "backup water" in the case of a drought.

With the impending completion of the Vista Ridge pipeline project, which will pump billions of gallons of groundwater from water wells near the Lee-Burleson County line, Pape and other critics fear that this legislation could threaten the groundwater of the Carrizo and Simsboro aquifers, which underlie Bastrop County. In his letter, Pape urged that the authority governing groundwater transfers remains in the hands of groundwater conservation districts -- the local boards that manage groundwater pumping permits.

"HB 1806 will set a bad precedent for unregulated transfers of groundwater which threaten Texas aquifers, and the millions of central Texans who rely on them," Pape wrote in his May 28 letter. "This legislation sets bad water policy. As county judge of one of the counties where this water is coming from, I plead with you to veto this bad legislation and require that the ultimate use of any exported water be defined and vetted in the permitting process with the local groundwater conservation district."

Pape's criticism aligns with that of Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R- Brenham, who was one of three dissenting votes against the bill as it passed out of committee last month.

"So basically my district is supplying water to SAWS so they can supply water to other parts? I don't think that's fair," Kolkhorst said during a recent Water and Rural Affairs Committee meeting.

She said that the counties in her district were under the impression that the Vista Ridge project, which taps the aquifer underlying her district, was necessary to supply water to San Antonio and that without it, San Antonio would not be able to grow.

Several counties in Kolkhorst's district "thought they had a contract with SAWS because San Antonio needed water," she said. "All of a sudden now we have a bill that says SAWS is going to start selling water? And guess whose supply of water? The people in my district."

"I think SAWS becomes a broker" under this bill, she added.

Donovan Burton, SAWS vice president for water resources and governmental relations, said that the bill is not intended to create a water marketplace but to create more versatile supply options in an area with limited water resources.

"The bill allows for efficient use of water infrastructure and allows for partnerships between SAWS and some of our local regional neighbors in adjacent counties only," Burton said.

Abbott has until June 16 to veto or sign the bill, or it will go into effect automatically.

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