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Hays County Water Fight Tumbles Into Committee

Dripping Springs state Rep. Jason Isaac went before the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday to make the case for his four-bill cocktail aimed at stopping a controversial groundwater pumping project in Hays County.

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

A volley of legislation launched by state Rep. Jason Isaac to stop a controversial groundwater project in Hays County came under harsh scrutiny by his fellow lawmakers on Wednesday. 

The Republican of Dripping Springs wants to stop Houston-based Electro Purification from pumping up to 5 million gallons of water a day from wells in his district and selling it to Austin's fast-growing Hill Country suburbs. Critics fear that volume of pumping could cause nearby residents' wells to dry up.

They also note that the company's wells are not located within a groundwater conservation district that could keep an eye on the pumping. The project has sparked outrage, with hundreds of residents attending contentious meetings to denounce it. Local and state lawmakers' phone lines have been flooded. 

In response, residents across Hays County on Wednesday got robo-calls from Billy Gray, a former mayor of Buda who is now working with Electro Purification, endorsing the project.

"You may have heard there are bills filed at the Texas Legislature that could take away more than 3 million gallons of water a day from Goforth customers and 1 million gallons of water a day from the city of Buda," the message says. "This could severely limit the water you have available in the coming years." 

Key members of the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday appeared skeptical of the four-bill cocktail Isaac has proposed. Isaac filed two bills that would expand existing groundwater conservation districts to include the wells, and another bill that would strip one of Electro Purification's customers of the eminent domain powers it might need to build a pipeline for the water. The three bills were left pending in committee, and a fourth bill will be heard later. 

When Isaac's bills came up, they ran into a buzz saw from the chairman and vice chairman of the committee, Republicans Jim Keffer of Eastland and Trent Ashby of Lufkin. They noted that Electro Purification's potential customers include Buda and nearby communities, which are among the fastest growing in the country. 

"What's going to happen to the growth potential in those areas [if the company's project gets killed]?" Keffer asked Isaac. Ashby later added, "I’d be real interested to hear from folks in Buda ... [who have been] trying for years to identify available water supplies." 

Ashby added that Electro Purification is "not violating any existing laws, here. They're playing by the rules." And outside the boundaries of groundwater conservation districts, he said, "the rule of capture is the law of the land." That means a landowner can pump unlimited amounts of water underground and isn't liable for harm to a neighbor's well. 

"That's debatable," Isaac responded. 

Keffer, Ashby and lawmakers expressed skepticism about claims that neighboring wells might go dry, citing dueling studies from residents and the company. They also panned efforts to expand groundwater districts to include the project's wells.

Keffer noted that Buda already has a contract with the company for water. If the project is stopped, "[are we] doing anything to run afoul legally of the contract?" he asked. Isaac said Buda's contract has an "out clause" if the company can't provide the water for any reason. 

Ashby also pointed out that it might not be a good idea for the Legislature to weigh in, since some Hays County residents filed a lawsuit last week that insists one of the districts should already be able to regulate Electro Purification's wells. 

Ed McCarthy, Electro Purification's lawyer, made the same point to Ashby. Because of the lawsuit, “your efforts here with this legislation are unnecessary," he told the committee. 

Isaac's most controversial bill would strip the Goforth Special Utility District, which hopes to buy Electro Purification's water for a growing neighborhood just outside Buda, of its ability to use eminent domain to build a pipeline. That's unusual, given that the Legislature expressly created Goforth and gave it eminent domain powers. 

Fred Aus, director of the Texas Rural Water Association, told the committee that such a bill is "taking tools out of the box of water systems." It may even discourage regional water projects that the Legislature likes so much, he said. Ashby agreed with him, adding that he didn't want to set a precedent of stripping legislatively created districts of powers lawmakers originally gave them. 

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