FARFA opposes Texas bill to extend water transport permits

At the House Committee on Natural Resources Hearing on March 5, FARFA opposed HB 1066 and urged amendments to protect groundwater conservation districts’ and the public’s involvement.

HB 1066 would extend transfer permits — for taking groundwater out of the district — automatically, with no opportunity for public comment or involvement. A second bill, HB 726, includes the same provision amid a much larger set of changes.  The only basis for a district to require a hearing would be if the permittee hadn’t been paying its fees or if there was a pending enforcement action against it.

There is some logic to the basic concept of the bill, i.e. matching up the terms of operating and export permits, but its real-world application poses a threat to the aquifers in Central Texas because of the massive Vista Ridge export project.  Vista Ridge, which plans to pump huge amounts of water from Milam & Burleson Counties to San Antonio, wants to extend its transfer permit immediately.   Even thought its current export permit is valid for another 18 years, the company — for reasons it refuses to share — is adamant that it should get a 10-year extension right now.

Since pumping has not yet started, the actual impact that the permit will have on the aquifer and the landowners in this district remains unknown.  In 2018, based on a similar bill that was vetoed by the Governor, Vista Ridge sought to extend its permit and, frankly, bullied those who spoke against this action. The Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District (POSGCD) did not deny the extension.  The Board simply held that Vista Ridge needed to apply for the extension as an amendment of its permit terms and go through the normal permit process.

Vista Ridge has chosen not to bother with that. Instead, it is presumably waiting for this bill to pass so that it can get an extension without any opportunity for the public to be involved.

Ten years ago, when Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District granted Vista Ridge’s transport permit, it was with the understanding that the permit would be up for renewal after 30 years, at which point the District would go through the process of examining the impact on the aquifer and all the other factors that Districts are required to consider in granting permits. The District did not consider the permit application with the understanding that it would be effectively indefinite, which is what HB 1066 would do.

FARAF urges the following amendments:

1) Specifically clarify that the extension is not to be granted until a reasonable time prior to the expiration of the permit. Specifically, amend the phrase “on or before,”  to “on or within 6 months before” the current permit expires.

2) Apply the bill prospectively, not retroactively.  This would enable districts like POSGCD to take a close look at the transfer permits they have when they do come up for renewal, rather than being forced to automatically extend the permit.  And the districts will be able to grant or deny the permit, or add any necessary conditions, with full understanding of the new rules on the permit terms and extensions.

3) Include some provision for public process that addresses any substantive concerns that have arisen due to the permit’s implementation. We don’t seek a full hearing in every case, but there should be some provision for the District Board to review the relevant factors – not just whether the permit holder has been paying its fees.