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Criticism of Water Policy Flows From Conservatives

Many conservative activists in Texas worry that when it comes to state water policy, Republican leaders have not focused on principles like small government, private property rights and local control.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Granbury resident Joe Williams (left) stands with City Council Member Rose Myers and Hood County Commissioner Steve Berry under a Lake Granbury resident's dock in the Waters Edge neighborhood on Lake Granbury's north shore. The lake is 53 percent full.

Since the beginning of the Tea Party movement in Texas in 2009,  state Republicans have harnessed its appeal to voters who are demanding less government spending and more local control. But when it comes to water policy, a hotly debated issue given the state’s severe drought and growing needs, conservatives worry that establishment Republicans have not stuck to those principles.

Many top Republican politicians in Texas have called for billions of dollars in spending for new water projects, an approach many conservative activists say will raise taxes and rob communities of having a say over managing their resources. Many of those activists campaigned against Proposition 6, the constitutional amendment voters approved last November that allowed $2 billion from the state's reserve fund to be used for financing water supply projects. 

“I’ve been a Republican all my life,” said Steve Berry, a commissioner in Hood County in North Texas, where residents on Lake Granbury are blaming state lawmakers for the reservoir’s low levels. “All these counties that are being affected, a lot of them are Republican counties, and we can’t get our Republican counterparts in Austin to address the problem. ... They’re sitting in Austin patting themselves in the back for balancing the budget off the Rainy Day Fund."

Lake Granbury is only 53 percent full, in part because of the drought, but also because the Brazos River Authority, which controls the lake, closed a nearby hydropower plant that had effectively delivered water to the lake.

The Hood County Tea Party has rallied around the issue, accusing the authority’s governor-appointed board of catering to special interests rather than the community’s needs and demanding that the authority make sure more water is delivered to the lake. The group is also involved in fighting attempts from the Brazos River Authority to withdraw more water from the river, which lakeside residents fear will further deplete the lake. 

The group also claims that a longtime state representative, Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, was behind the plant’s closure. Keffer won a contentious 2014 primary race against Cullen Crisp, a Tea Party-backed farmer who overwhelmingly won Hood County.

“As we’ve gotten more involved, we see that it’s really all about local politics,” said Rene Poe, the Hood County Tea Party’s vice president, who owns a house on the lake. Like Berry, Poe said she no longer trusts top Republican politicians in Austin to fight for local communities.

Keffer said decisions about Lake Granbury were “made above our pay grade here.” But he is calling for more accountability for river authorities. “I don’t blame people for being frustrated,” he said. “I was the closest guy they could vent their frustration at.”

Poe and Berry said preserving water resources like Lake Granbury was an important conservative principle, and conservative groups in rural Central Texas agreed. They are fighting the efforts of water companies that want to pump from underneath Bastrop and Lee counties to accommodate urban water needs elsewhere. 

The groups say Republican legislators are focused on paying for expensive water projects, which will only encourage big government and will not protect existing local water resources.

“While we have a state government that is fixated on bashing the feds, they’re ignoring major problems in the regulatory world underneath them,” said Linda Curtis, founder of Independent Texans, a political action group. Independent Texans has joined with environmental groups in encouraging the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, which regulates the aquifers, to resist attempts by water companies to export the area's groundwater. Curtis said state lawmakers have not protected such groundwater districts from big water export companies. 

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said that locally elected groundwater districts are empowered to make their own decisions, but that all 100 such districts in Texas need to play by the same rules.

If they do not, “you’re going to force us to go through either the courts or the Legislature to look at it,” said Fraser, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Still, groundwater is private property in Texas, and championing property rights can sometimes conflict with conserving natural resources. In the Panhandle, the Ogallala Aquifer is losing more water to pumping than it is gaining from rain.

Yet when local water officials suggested pumping limitations, farmers rebelled and voted most of them out of office. The proposed regulations are on hold. Farmers say they have enough market incentive to conserve the water in the Ogallala for future generations, but many scientists and water officials disagree. 

Such apparent disconnects will make it difficult for conservative groups to effectively challenge establishment Republicans, said Debra Medina, a Tea Party activist who has run for governor and comptroller.

“So often when we look for solutions to public policy, we want them to fit nice and neat on a bumper sticker,” she said. “And I think the Tea Party is gullible and susceptible to that sort of quick remedy thinking.”

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