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Isaac Jumping Into Hays County Water Fight

With a four-bill cocktail, state Rep. Jason Isaac hopes to stop, or at last slow, a Houston-based company's plans to pump huge amounts of water from beneath Hays County.

by Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, on the House floor, February 8, 2011.

With a high-profile groundwater fight raging in his district, state Rep. Jason Isaac is launching a volley of legislation to stop plans to pump huge amounts of water from underneath Hays County.

The Houston-based company Electro Purification plans to pump up to 5 million gallons of water daily from the Trinity Aquifer and sell it to some of Austin's fastest-growing Hill Country suburbs. Hundreds of Isaac's constituents have responded with outrage, holding contentious community meetings and flooding his office with phone calls demanding action. 

In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, the Dripping Springs Republican said he plans to propose three laws to protect Hays County residents who fear the company's pumping will dry up their own wells. "This is just to ensure that their fair share [of groundwater] is there," he said.

Isaac will announce his legislation at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon alongside state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who has said she will file at least one of the bills in the Senate. 

Two bills would place Electro Purification's well fields, now unregulated, under the jurisdiction of two different Central Texas groundwater conservation districts — so that if one fails, the other is a back up. And since they are considered "local bills," it's not likely they'll be challenged in the Legislature. 

It's the third bill, which Isaac called the real "saving grace" to end the Electro Purification project, that has raised eyebrows. That bill strips away much of the eminent domain authority from the Goforth Special Utility District, a water provider for about 20,000 people living just outside Buda.

Goforth wants to buy 3 million gallons of water a day from Electro Purification, and might need to condemn land outside its district boundaries for a shared pipeline with the city of Buda. Isaac's bill would take away that condemnation power.

"There's a big concern about some districts like this that are really abusing their eminent domain power," Isaac said. "I think it's going to send a pretty clear message to other districts out there."

The bill is atypical. Most legislators propose creating new utility districts or expanding their powers — not scaling them back. "It's unusual, at best," said Russ Johnson, a water lawyer based in Austin. He said the bill could set a dangerous precedent for special water districts like Goforth, which exist to provide people living outside of cities affordable water service. 

"The reality of water is that you cannot limit utilities to water supplies that they can find within their boundaries. You just can't," said Johnson. Doing so "would deprive them of their ability to supply their customers." Johnson represented one of the landowners who is selling his groundwater to Electro Purification. 

Leonard Dougal, the Austin-based attorney for Goforth, said that while he has not seen the bill, it might not stop the project from going forward. If Goforth loses its eminent domain power, the city of Buda still has that authority and could build the pipeline instead, he said.

"Goforth and Buda and others need water," Dougal said. "This is a project to bring water from Hays County to Hays County customers." Buda's mayor, Todd Ruge, said he could not comment on the legislation before reading it. 

Electro Purification's lawyer Ed McCarthy also declined to comment on the Goforth bill. But he said that Isaac's two other proposals — expanding the territory of the groundwater conservation districts near the company's well fields — wouldn't necessarily stop his client's project. 

"The bill he drafted didn't take away EP's ability to operate," McCarthy said. "EP's not averse to regulation. They certainly want it to be fair, but that doesn't kill a project automatically."

Hays County residents who oppose the pumping project hope that a groundwater conservation district would effectively kill or severely limit it by restricting how much Electro Purification could pump. But it would take time and money to come up with those new regulations. And both groundwater districts that Isaac is proposing to expand — the Hays-Trinity Groundwater Conservation District and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District — don't have enough. 

The Hays-Trinity district is reliant on funding from Hays County, which will run out at the end of the year. And the Barton Springs expects up to $800,000 in start-up costs for things like legal fees, monitoring wells and adding new board members. The projected revenue from the new territory it absorbs would be $600,000 a year at most, the district estimates.  

A fourth bill that Isaac has already filed would put some unregulated areas, like the one where Electro Purification's wells are now, under the authority of the Texas Water Development Board. But recognizing what a huge change that would be, Isaac said he expects to substitute the bill and instead give that authority to nearby groundwater conservation districts. 

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