"More Questions than Answers from Groundwater Conservation District" | Article and Photos by Jeanette Larson

The Aransas County Groundwater Conservation District held its regular board meeting on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 at 5:30 p.m. President Tom Callan noted that under the Open Meetings Act [link], items not on the posted agenda could not be discussed during the time reserved for "Citizens to be Heard." Citizens were welcome to make comments as they wished regarding the District, but the Board cannot respond. This clearly frustrated many of those in attendance who chose to speak anyway.

A main point of concern for several speakers was the lack of information about the meeting, and the workshop to follow, on the District's website. William Conrad spoke about concerns that the board has never discussed the District’s goals and objectives. Wendy Laubach specifically asked that since the board is constrained by the Open Meetings Act from discussing this now that they put the topic on a future agenda as it has been brought up by citizens several times. Steve Meinhausen requested that a future agenda include discussion and citizen input on dissolving the District. Debbie Eckhart added that the board should be dissolved because it is a temporary board that should only have existed until the May election. Since the election defeated the District, the board should no longer exist. It was stated that there would be no election for the District in 2017.

The board discussed future needs, including a new Groundwater Management Area 15 (GMA 15) and Future Conditions Report. They also discussed the need to find ways to turn negative perceptions of the Groundwater Conservation District into positive perceptions. Director Hegen stated that the board owed it to the public to spend the time needed to explain the District and change perceptions. The board also decided to meet once a quarter, with the next meeting scheduled for November 9, 2016. The meeting was adjourned with the promise to ensure that future notifications and information would be posted to the District's website.

The workshop session began at 6:00 p.m. to a full house with some new arrivals added to those remaining from the board meeting. The main purpose of the workshop was to answer questions from attendees relative to the District and the May election. President Callan recommended that everyone read "Questions About Groundwater Conservation Districts in Texas," [link] a document that was available to all in attendance. This document, he said, would answer many of the questions that had been asked in the past and that were anticipated for this workshop session.

Although there was little organization to the questions asked and related questions were often asked at different times during the session, many dealt with the effects and benefits citizens would experience from a groundwater conservation district. Callan stated that there would be few immediate benefits, but rather we need to look at the long-term benefits. Wendy Laubach specifically asked the board to address the threats to groundwater in Aransas County. The board replied that the values that can come out of a district would come from scientific studies. An audience member indicated that without studies, the proposals to be determined will be filled with controversy or be a waste of time; however, there are no funds for a study and the board indicated that a study would normally be done after the District came into being. Hegen asked the audience how a study was supposed to be done without funding from the District. Some of the data available to the board is from 1969 and the board agreed that without fresh data there is little on which to base assumptions. Laubach stated that the District is an unfunded mandate and questioned whether there were other ways to get the money needed now. Linda Holzman asked "Why can't the county fund a study to provide the answers needed to decide whether we need a District?"

Many of those in attendance seemed to be well-versed in the Texas Water Code as administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Meinhausen noted that the TCEQ had done a study that determined that Aransas County was not a critical groundwater district and would not be for at least 25 years. A short discussion ensued as to the definition of "critical" and "not critical.” Ultimately it was noted that there are a myriad of definitions and factors that cause an area to fall into the critical category.

Other questions dealt with how much authority the District would have to monitor well water usage and to keep others, especially big corporations, from draining our aquifer. Most of the answers were rather limited or non-committal with Director Alexander stating that the citizens would decide on the level of control desired. He also indicated that corporations could be charged for water pulled from Aransas County.

Steve Meinhausen made an impassioned plea for the board to stay away from scare tactics, especially those dealing with issues that can't be answered today. He expressed concern that the District could write anything into a plan and could tax, and even take, land. Several speakers talked about the "rule of capture" that is intrinsic to the water rights of property owners. Meinhausen ask that the scope of what can be done by the District be clearly defined. Later Meinhausen pointed out that the District has the authority to define domestic use of water and is authorized to set penalties, noting that these "are onerous circumstances to bring into our community." Several speakers noted the lack of trust the community has for the board and the District and the need for better written communication about their plans. William Campbell asked "What are the regulations?" He stated that the constant answer from the board is that they won't know the regulations until after the District passes. One attendee again questioned how the board can continue to exist, noting that the minutes from the October 2015 meeting indicated that if the election failed several matters were moot. It was noted that the County Attorney had consulted with representatives and sponsors of the legislation establishing the District and were assured that additional elections were allowed.

Another area of concern was taxing wells. Herb Puryear asked what the percentage of well owners in the county is compared to non-well owners. The board did not have numbers. It was then stated by a member of the audience that every licensed well driller must log the wells they put in with TCEQ and those logs are public documents, information the board should be able to access. Several times the board stated that home wells would not be metered, although there are several options available to the District to meter commercial wells and monitor the effects on the aquifer and neighboring wells. There was also some discussion about enforcement, with one person asking if their well could be turned off for pulling too much water. The board stated emphatically that the control would only affect wells drawing 25,000 gallons a day or more. "We are not interested in monitoring residential wells. Regulations would not affect the guy with a well to water his lawn," Callan said. In response to a question, it was noted that wells are currently not regulated except by deed restrictions or proximity to septic systems and that older wells would be grandfathered in. County Precinct 4 Commissioner Betty Stiles shared that a family of four would use 1-acre foot (360,000 gallons) of water a year according to TCEQ, nowhere near 25,000 gallons a day. Director Wildman said it would be "ludicrous to attempt to permit wells" and stated that "We are not your enemy. We have the same love for Aransas County as you do."

Herb Puryear raised a question about budgets, indicating that much of the discussion has been about wells. He wondered what is in it for those residents that don't own wells but would pay the same taxes. Callan stated that for an average $200,000 home the tax for the Groundwater Conservation District would be $20 a year. The board noted that the tax is for the protection of everyone, not just those who have wells. Again, it was reiterated that the benefit is not short term but rather for 50 years from now.

Ultimately Callan stated that Board could not answer all of the questions raised to which one attendee responded “Then why are we here?" Callan promised the board will put together a list of “take aways” for discussion at a future workshop.

Jeanette Larson is a retired librarian and author. She and her husband, retired architect and artist Jim Larson, moved to Rockport several years ago for the birds, the beach, and the coastal community.

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