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House Takes Testimony on Groundwater

The House Natural Resources Committee is taking testimony today on a controversial groundwater bill that would give landowners "a vested ownership interest" in water below their land.

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The House Natural Resources Committee is taking testimony today on a controversial groundwater bill passed last week by the Senate.

The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Troy FraserR-Horseshoe Bay, and in the House by Rep. Allan RitterR-Nederland, would establish that landowners in the state have a "vested ownership interest" in the water below their land, while still being subject to the state's new groundwater planning process designed to preserve Texas aquifers.

"Water is a finite resource. It is the most precious resource that this state is charged with conserving," said Ritter, the committee chairman, as he introduced the bill. The bill represented a "compromise," he added, between landowners' rights and the state's interest in regulating groundwater.

The bill's supporters say that it would merely clarify existing law. But environmental groups worry that the bill could give landowners latitude to bypass state-imposed groundwater limits. Passage of the bill "would undermine the current system for managing groundwater resources in Texas," said Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, in an email before testimony on the bill began.

Several lawmakers questioned whether the word "vested" was too strong. "I have trouble with the word vested when it means so much," said Rep. Trey Martinez-FischerD-San Antonio. It might be "a bit misleading," he added, despite language also in the bill that reiterates the importance of the groundwater planning process.

First Assistant Attorney General Daniel Hodge testified that the language seemed to preserve the protections to the groundwater process. "What it would do is, essentially, it would codify the landowner's ownership interest while at the same time not limiting the state's ability to provide reasonable regulations," he said. The attorney general's office is neutral on the bill.

Testimony on the bill, SB 332, did not begin until nearly 4 p.m. It came after the end of a long line of groundwater bills — some of them similarly themed — that the committee was also considering.

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