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Hays County Groundwater Regulation Efforts Likely Dead

After fears of a massive, unregulated groundwater pumping project sparked a passionate display of political activism by Texas Hill Country residents earlier this year, the resulting legislative efforts appear to have failed.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, on the floor of the House on May 15, 2015.

Updated, 8:30 p.m.:

Before the Texas House adjourned Thursday evening, it was announced that the point of order that was originally sustained on House Bill 3405 had been overruled. The measure is now poised to head to a conference committee of House and Senate members. Read more here.

Original story:

After fears of a massive, unregulated groundwater pumping project sparked a passionate display of political activism by Texas Hill Country residents earlier this year, the resulting legislative efforts appear to have failed.

The Houston-based company Electro Purification plans to pump up to 5 million gallons of water per day from wellfields in western Hays County — far more water than has ever been pumped there previously, and in an area that is not covered by a groundwater conservation district that could regulate the withdrawals. 

News of the project spread quickly earlier this year, as did concerns that local residents in Hays County would see their own wells run dry. (No one has proven that, although Electro Purification officials acknowledge that some residents may have to lower their pumps.) The company says it is providing needed new water supplies to rapidly growing Buda and surrounding areas.

But just days before the 2015 legislative session is set to end, none of the bills that state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, proposed in hopes of stopping the project have been successful. His key bill, which would have expanded the jurisdiction of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Groundwater Conservation District to include Electro Purification's wellfields, failed in the House on Wednesday night. If the company's wells are within a conservation district, it would have to report how much water it pumps and potentially be subject to pumping limits. 

Electro Purification's spokesman, John Hatch, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday. 

The death knell came from an unlikely source: state Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso. González raised a point of order — a parliamentary maneuver — on House Bill 3405. 

"We're just devastated," Isaac said in an interview Thursday. Of his constituents in Hays County, who flooded lawmakers' offices with calls over the past two months and made dozens of trips to the Capitol, he said, "They are absolutely crushed." 

The bill's Senate sponsor, state Sen. Donna Campbell, said in a statement, "It is a very disappointing development to have a lawmaker from El Paso — hundreds of miles away from my district — insert themselves into a local bill against the will of the people and against the elected officials who represent them."

In a phone interview, González said, "I just felt [the bill] set a really bad precedent and could particularly harm rural communities." 

Isaac said he doesn't understand González's argument. He pointed out that other legislation creating new groundwater conservation districts or expanding the jurisdiction of existing ones passed the chambers without a problem. 

"She's a pawn of somebody else who's pulling the strings," Isaac said of González. "There are some very powerful political players that are working to thwart our efforts." 

González said she made her own decision, and Isaac's characterization "really makes me upset." She said she heard concerns from "multiple stakeholders," including Buda residents. She did not hear from Electro Purification, she said.

"I think that if we're going to expand districts in any way, shape or form, that all stakeholders should feel comfortable with the process," González said.

The bill may still have a chance in the Senate. That's a tall order given what's already on the Senate calendar, Isaac said, and he doesn't expect it to happen. 

"It's late in the game, but there are still a couple of vehicles I have left," Campbell said in an interview Thursday on the Senate floor. "It's important to have a conservation district in that area, if we are going to protect the wells and protect the people. ... I will fight to the end to do that." 

Campbell did amend other Senate legislation to include language from House Bill 3405, but Isaac said he's not optimistic the legislation will succeed that way. 

Once the legislative session is over, Isaac said there are other options to try to stop the company — or, at least, to make sure the company operates in a regulated environment, where it would have to report how much groundwater it pumps and be subject to certain limits. Landowners in the area could petition the state to create or expand a groundwater conservation district. Some area landowners have also sued the company. 

González said she would consider supporting future efforts to put Electro Purification's wellfields in a groundwater conservation district. In 2017, she said, lawmakers can try again. 

"Two years isn't that far off, in reality," she said. 

John Reynolds and Jim Malewitz contributed reporting. 

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