A bill in the Texas legislature that would give county governments more authority to protect water sources in the Hill Country has not made it past the committee hurdle.
House Bill 3883, authored by State Rep. Kyle Biedermann, failed to secure enough votes to pass the Land & Resource Management Committee which voted 5-4 against the bill.
Biedermann, who represents Comal as well as Kendall and Gillespie in the Texas House, and his staff are working in committee substitutes to amend the bill and pass a different version that is more “agreeable” by the committee, his office said on Thursday.
If it was to pass there, it would go to the House Calendars Committee to determine its priority on and then to the House floor.
The bill would allow commissioners courts to regulate and manage developments that would affect groundwater sourcing. The court would have the power to make developments provide a primary and secondary source of water, with proponents saying the region already struggles to secure water from local wells and systems.
It would apply to nine counties within the Hill Country’s unincorporated areas — those outside the boundaries of cities, and would include parts of Comal, Hays, Bexar and Travis County and all of Gillespie, Kerr, Blanco, Bandera and Kendall County.
Comal County property owner and retired geologist Jack Olivier was unsure if the bill will pass, but said it had been needed for decades and called it critical to protecting water for Hill Country homes.
“If we don’t do it now, when will we do it?”
How It’s Managed
Properties typically get water from groundwater sources, which is held underground in the soil or pores and crevices in rock. This water is usually hidden in aquifers, permeable rocks and sediments and is extracted with wells.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality designates “Priority Groundwater Management Areas” and it has designated nine counties, including Comal, as the Hill Country Priority Groundwater Management Area. Those are often divided into Groundwater Conservation Districts. The Comal County area has the Comal Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which manages and protects the Trinity Aquifer from being overdrawn.
Many properties have their own domestic wells, primarily from the Edwards and Trinity aquifers, Olivier said.
Many subdivisions in central Comal County get their water managed by the Canyon Lake Water Corporation. This water is sourced from both the Trinity Aquifer and surface water from the Canyon Lake Reservoir.
Many of those properties have their own domestic wells, but the shallow zone of the Trinity is currently being depleted, so property will have to re-drill their wells to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, Olivier said.
While some of those properties are located near the Edwards Aquifer, water can’t be drawn from it since it is a recharge zone and “it’s going in” and not being taken out.
“My water is mostly Trinity Aquifer, I’m in the same boat as these private landowners,” Olivier said. “There are too many people using too much water, including swimming pools. It’s also becoming increasingly industrial usage. People continue to add new wells, place bigger demands, deplete everybody’s ability to get water.”
Supporters of Biedermann’s bill said allowing commissioners courts to manage these districts and regulate developers would give the court “tools” to manage water protection, such as setting reasonable lot sizes and minimum frontage restrictions (to prevent high-density development), require adequate water supply prior to subdivision development and establish infrastructure cost recovery fees paid by developers.
“HB 3883 would go a long way to fix that problem by making available a method for the county commissioners in the nine counties in the Hill Country Protective Groundwater Management Areas to obtain appropriate local controls to manage growth,” Olivier said.
Stop 3009 Vulcan Quarry, an environmental nonprofit of made up of geologists, lawyers and community organizers trying to stop a quarry from being built over the Edwards Aquifer, is one of the supporters of the bill.
The nonprofit, alongside residents of Comal County and Kendall County testified before the committee earlier this month in favor of the bill.
Kendall County Commissioner Richard W. Elkins said this will provide necessary development rules while allowing new economic development.
Olivier testified before the legislative committee supporting the bill with Stop 3009 Vulcan Quarry.
He said it would allow residents to protect their water by having their commissioners speak for those who know the area and the residents better than someone in Austin.
The one opponent who testified against the bill was M. Scott Norman, Jr., the executive director of the Texas Association of Builders.
He told the committee he understands the issue of water depletion in Hill Country and how it affects where houses are built, but said this bill would lead to property owners encouraging the commissioners courts to regulate to keep out future development.
“There are some counties, and I’m sure some county leadership have said this, would allow those of the ‘haves’ of their place in the country or their place in the county to close the gate behind them and stop growth,” Norman said.
He said this regulation would turn away developers and the people who could buy more affordable property in that area, he said.
“Unincorporated areas are the only place you can find affordably-priced housing and this legislation is drafted, if there was a vote in that county, I think some would vote to keep their piece of the pie and keep newcomers out,” Norman said.
Biedermann, who has spoken with Norman about the bill, said this was not the case.
“We can’t just come through and say we’re trying to keep people out,” Biedermann said. “The ‘have and have nots,’ that’s really not the truth.”
He said it does not affect the buffer areas just outside city limits for municipalities to define potential growth and future service boundaries.
He said high density could be anywhere in the cities or counties, but the bill is to protect water resources.
“It comes down to build all we can and then around the water say ‘Whoops, we made a mistake,” Biedermann said. “Or are we going to look together and make sure the builders when they’re building a house for people, that they can make sure those people have water for, could be even five years, 10 years.”
Norman said his association and himself want to look at changes that would protect the water supply, but said he remained worried about expanded powers for counties to regulate development.
Biedermann asked Norman if builders negotiate with the county about areas they would be impacting.
Norman said they support giving counties the ability to negotiate with these builders entailing water, sewer, infrastructure requirements and water and drainage regulations.
“But again, targeted authority, not broad sweeping [authority],” Norman said.
He said the state is growing and his association is against anything that would raise the price of housing, such as needing to build on bigger lots.
Biedermann said the groundwater management areas were created 30 years ago specifically to protect the water.
“We’re talking about one small area,” Biedermann said. “They foresaw that this was a very fragile area. I would think that the homebuilding association would be wanting to take that into consideration and not just be open building.”
As New Braunfels continues to grow, residents in Hill Country such as Terry Olson are hoping these regulations would protect their water from further over pumping.
“I’ve lived in Hill Country since 1989,” Olson told the H-Z. “I’ve seen the explosion of growth and understand the fluctuations of water on resources in the area. I understand needs for neighborhoods to grow affordable housing, but what I don’t agree with is irresponsible growth.”
Olson testified before the committee and said the issue is not about affordability if the bill passes, since property will already not be affordable if it has constant water issues.
She said her neighbors’ 650-foot well cannot pump water to keep up with demand in the summer — even though they do not water their grass.
During the freeze, Olson’s home had difficulty extracting water at all, she said.
Besides Comal County residents, individuals and organizations from Kendall County also support the bill, including the county’s commissioners.
The county did a survey with about 96.4% Kendall County responses in favor.
Comal County Judge Sherman Krause said he was notified of the bill but has not had the chance to look over it thoroughly yet.
“For many years now, counties have been talking about keeping up with development and providing roadways and other infrastructures to service those areas being developed,” Krause said. “Certainly at times, we’re suffering from drought conditions right now, and in one of those times where we’re behind on rainfall compared to the average that we usually get.”
Olivier said he supports the bill, since areas in Hill Country are not tightly regulated like the cities, and hopes their water can be protected from excessive development.
“We have record growth,” Olivier said. “Mostly in unincorporated areas, it’s called the ‘wild, wild west.’ The development is pretty much uncontrolled at the moment.”