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Water war looms over Texas House race

By   /   February 16, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

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SAGEBRUSH REBELLION: With early voting under way, rural residents in House District 17 are resisting San Antonio’s plan to draw off millions of gallons of water from their aquifers.

 

A rural-urban fight over a controversial $3.4 billion water project looms large as voters in southeastern Texas decide a statehouse race on March 1.

“The Home of the Water Wars” spawned a 2015 state law prohibiting water marketers from suing individual members of local groundwater boards.

Independent Texans, a nonpartisan group that opposes a San Antonio Water System plan to funnel millions of gallons of water from the rural region, hailed the legislation.

“This ‘little bill’ has huge implications by putting the stop to water marketers using lawsuits as a club to have their way with water board members by suing them individually,” said Independent Texans founder Linda Curtis.

Republican Rep. John Cyrier — representing Bastrop, Lee, Caldwell, Gonzales and Karnes counties — authored HB 3163. The measure was co-authored by Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, and sponsored in the Senate by Democrat Kirk Watson of Austin. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law last June.

Cyrier faces Brent Golemon in a GOP primary that will decide the House District 17 contest. With no Democrats on the ballot, the two have jousted over water policy in their winner-take-all contest.

For his part, Golemon said he has not accepted campaign contributions from organizations “which I know do not desire to protect rural water rights.” He asserted that Cyrier allowed another bill designed to strengthen local water districts to fail for “political purposes.”

Curtis said Golemon “positions himself on water like Cyrier but has done nothing to help us.” Calling water “the No. 1 issue,” she said, “It gets people fighting more than any other across partisan lines.”

Forget it, Jake

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SEQUEL: A Texas version of “Chinatown” is in the works, with San Antonio playing Los Angeles.

San Antonio’s proposed pipeline is reminiscent of Los Angeles’ rural water grab depicted in the 1974 movie “Chinatown.”

Residents of Texas House District 17 worry that their farms and ranches will be destroyed the way Central California’s Owens Valley and Mono Lake were drained to slake LA’s voracious thirst.

Critics say San Antonio’s Vista Ridge water pipeline project, in partnership with the Spanish engineering firm Abengoa, is a bum deal for taxpayers at both ends of the straw.

“It’s inequitable because it forces current ratepayers to foot the entire bill for massive amounts of water they don’t need, while new development avoids impact fees and stands ready to buy ‘excess’ Vista Ridge water at discounted rates,” according to a 36-page analysis of the project.

The San Antonio Water System projects that its residential rates will rise 50 percent over five years to pay for the public-private venture.

RELATED: Pipeline to drain rural areas, soak city taxpayers

The rural water purchase is not a done deal. Landowners in Burleson and Milam counties are resisting.

Cyrier’s bill forced one water purveyor, the Forestar Group, to drop its lawsuits against members of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District. Nevertheless, Forestar won approval last December to withdraw 28,500 acre-feet of water annually from the Simsboro Aquifer in Lee County.

“We’re getting ready for the next session when the Legislature — under the heels of the real estate lobby and municipal governments — is going to try to take away any semblance of local control of groundwater districts,” Curtis told Watchdog.org.

“The groundwater districts are a mixed bag,” she acknowledged, “but they are the only local control we have.”

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]. @Kenricward

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Kenric Ward is the San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org. A California native and veteran journalist who has worked on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, he received a BA from UCLA (Political Science/Phi Beta Kappa) and holds an MBA. He reported and edited at the San Jose Mercury News and the Las Vegas Sun before joining Watchdog.org in 2012 and previously reported from Virginia. Kenric can be reached at [email protected]