Law­mak­ers pro­pose eas­ing wa­ter pump­ing reg­u­la­tions

Bills would ben­e­fit large landown­ers, re­viv­ing Hays County dis­pute.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Asher Price ash­er­price@states­man.com

Two years af­ter ex­pand­ing the reach of an Austin-area ground­wa­ter district to reg­u­late pump­ing in Hays County, law­mak­ers are con­sid­er­ing mea­sures that would wa­ter down over­sight.

The mea­sures ap­pear to fa­vor Greg LaMan­tia — a po­lit­i­cally con­nected South Texas beer distrib­u­tor and owner of the 5,000-acre Need­more Ranch east of Wim­ber­ley — who un­suc­cess­fully fought ef­forts in the last leg­isla­tive ses­sion to ex­pand the Bar­ton Springs/ Ed­wards Aquifer Ground­wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion District.

LaMan­tia, whose prop­erty is also in the ter­ri­tory of the weaker, neigh­bor­ing Hays-Trin­ity Ground­wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion District but whose well is now in the Bar­ton Springs district, is ask­ing for per­mis­sion to pump as much as 900 acre-feet per year, or 550 gal­lons of wa­ter per minute, for live­stock and agri­cul­ture. The per­mit

re­quest could be amended for a dif­fer­ent use in the fu­ture, and neigh­bors in Hays County say the pump­ing threat­ens their own ground­wa­ter.

The dis­pute un­der­scores height­ened con­cerns over wa­ter in Hays County, which is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing rapid pop- ula­tion growth —the Cen­sus Bureau last week esti- mated the county’s pop­ula- tion at more than 200,000 and re­ported that the county again was among the fastest-grow­ing in the coun­try.

Se­nate Bill 1814, by state Sen. Juan Hi­no­josa, D-McAl- len, would ease the way for LaMan­tia — or other landown- ers whose par­cel is greater than 1,000 acres and strad- dles at least two ground­wa­ter dis­tricts — to trans­fer over­sight of his pump­ing from the Bar­ton Springs district to the Hays-Trin­ity ground­wa­ter district.

An­other mea­sure, House Bill 4045, by state Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San An­to­nio, de­mands that ground- wa­ter dis­tricts is­sue pump­ing per­mits “with­out no­tice or op­por­tu­nity for hear­ing” to

those who own at least 1,000 acres that are in the ter­ri­tory of two or more groundwa- ter dis­tricts. Un­der a com­pli­cated for­mula, the Cortez mea­sure also would vastly ex­pand how much wa­ter Need­more Ranch could pump.

‘A sen­si­tive is­sue’

Both law­mak­ers said the mea­sures have statewide im­pact.

“It’s im­por­tant large landown­ers have a say and a voice,” said Cortez, who said he is try­ing to ex­pe­dite the wa­ter per­mit­ting process. He said some landown­ers in his district would be af­fected but de­clined to give ex­am­ples; he also said West Texas prop­erty own­ers, in the Fort Stock­ton area, could be af­fected. Asked if he was fil­ing the

bill on LaMan­tia’s be­half, he said no.

He said he had spo­ken to LaMan­tia “in pass­ing, but he didn’t specif­i­cally say to file this bill.”

Hi­no­josa called wa­ter “a sen­si­tive is­sue” and said his mea­sure is meant clar­ify reg­u­la­tory over­sight in sit­u­a­tions with over­lap­ping con­ser­va­tion dis­tricts.

He de­clined to say whether he had con­sulted LaMan­tia as he pre­pared the bill.

Hi­no­josa’s cam­paign has re­ceived at least $10,000 from Greg LaMan­tia since 2012, and at least $90,000 over­all from mem­bers of the LaMan­tia fam­ily since 2012, ac­cord­ing to an Amer­i­can-States­man re­view of cam­paign fi­nance records. Mem­bers of the LaMan­tia

fam­ily have con­trib­uted at least $5,000 to Cortez since 2012, in­clud­ing a $2,500 con­tri­bu­tion in De­cem­ber.

Greg LaMan­tia did not re­spond to an in­ter­view re­quest.

‘Sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns’

Ed McCarthy, who rep­re­sents the Need­more Ranch Mu­nic­i­pal Util­ity District, said there is “ad­e­quate wa­ter for (Need­more’s) per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion as well as for neigh- bors’ pro­duc­tion.”

But Bar­ton Springs conser- va­tion district Gen­eral Man­ager John Dup­nik said his of­fice “has sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns with both bills, as do other ground­wa­ter dis­tricts across the state.”

The Cortez mea­sure “is par- tic­u­larly con­cern­ing, be­cause it would ef­fec­tively guaran- tee a per­mit to cer­tain large

landown­ers for ex­traordi- nary amounts of ground­wa­ter pump­ing with­out any scien- tific ba­sis and with­out any due process. It would re­quire the per­mit to be is­sued with­out any pub­lic no­tice or hear­ing, and thus with­out any con­sid­er­a­tion of the im­pact on the neigh­bors’ wa­ter wells and pro­tec­tion of their pri­vate prop­erty rights,” he said.

The Hi­no­josa pro­posal “would al­low a large land- owner to ‘shop’ around for the ground­wa­ter district of their pref­er­ence with­out re­gard to how much land is in ei­ther district or which aquifer they de­pend on,” he said.

Ground­wa­ter on most of the ranch, home to the lo­cally beloved Lit­tle Arkan- sas swim­ming spot on the Blanco River, was not reg­u­lated be­fore the Leg­is­la­ture in June ex­panded the reach of the Bar­ton Springs con­ser­va­tion district.

The leg­isla­tive ac­tion was prompted by anx­i­ety among Hays County prop­erty own­ers over Hous­ton-based Elec­tro Pu­rifi­ca­tion’s plan to pump and sell up to 5.3 mil­lion gal­lons per day out of the al­ready stressed Trin- ity Aquifer.

“Ob­vi­ously, these bills are about carv­ing out spe­cific pro­tec­tions for Need­more, at the ex­pense of other landown­ers and their groundwa- ter,” said Vanessa Puig-Wil­liams, di­rec­tor of the Trin­ity Ed­wards Springs Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, which is funded by Hays County landown­ers and is try­ing to limit how much LaMan­tia can pump.

State Rep. Ja­son Isaac, R-Drip­ping Springs, who au­thored the 2015 leg­is­la­tion, did not re­turn re­quests for com­ment Mon­day.

But Hays County Com­mis­sioner Will Con­ley, a Repub­li­can who over­sees the Wim­ber­ley area, said that “any­thing that changes im­prove­ments in ground­wa­ter man­age­ment that we were able to ac­com­plish in my opin­ion would not be good for Hays-Trin­ity or the Bar­ton-Ed­wards aquifers or for res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial well own­ers and for our nat­u­ral as­sets and en­vi­ron­ment.”

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